In episode 24 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Bobbi Russell discussed include:
- Transitioning back to in person
- How nonprofits can make accommodations while working from home
- How investing in systems and organization can help in the long term
Bobbi is an operations executive with 20+ years of experience working with nonprofit organizations. She launched her own practice in 2017 after working in a COO role for 10+ years. While similar systems and processes can work for many organizations, she sees success when organizations apply solutions that are customized to their culture. She’s really good at understanding the human aspect of how any new system, tool, or process will integrate with an organization’s culture. Earlier in her career, she worked in marketing, membership, strategic communications, and journalism. She has an undergraduate degree in English from Clarion University of PA and an MBA from George Washington University. Her non-work passions include her dog, craft beer, and writing parody songs to entertain friends and family.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Bobbi Russel. Bobbi is an operations executive who works with nonprofit organizations. She launched her own consulting practice in 2017 after working in a COO role for more than 10 years. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Bobbi and I talk about how investing in operations boosts morale and saves your organization time in the long run. What helps staff thrive in a remote work environment, what organizations need to think about as they are thinking about whether they will be heading back into the office and how your organization’s insurance and benefits providers can be partners in supporting your organization’s HR function especially if you are a small organization without a dedicated HR person.
Welcome Bobbi. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Bobbi Russell: Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm glad to be here today.
Carol: So I like to start with the question about your motivation for the work that you do. So, what drew you to your work? What motivates you? What would you describe as your, why?
Bobbi: I've worked in the nonprofit community for more than 20 years. And for a large chunk of that was running an organization. And about four years ago, I had the chance to do some consulting. And my, when I think about the why for that, it's a mix of collaboration and independent work. That's a great fit for me. That's on the very tactical level. But also, I get to be a part of many different teams in working with different clients. And it's such a learning exchange of getting to experience different cultures, different ways of operating the different kinds of work. And so in addition to the work that I do, the fulfillment I get from coaching and collaborating with somebody doing direct HR support or helping with operations, I get that fulfillment from other interactions and learning about different cultures and styles.
Carol: Yeah, I really appreciate that idea of a learning exchange. Cause I, I definitely feel like that when I'm working with clients that it's a partnership and I may be walking them through a similar process that I've walked another group through, but their issues, their team, the personalities, the issue that they're working on, what's going on inside the organization, all of that is new. So I'm always learning and, and I just appreciate that. It just keeps everything really interesting. It does. So, as you mentioned, a lot of your work with organizations revolves around operations, which isn't always the most sexy or exciting thing, or the thing that people actually associate with nonprofit work, but it really is so critical for organizations. In order to achieve their mission. What would you say are some of the benefits of actually investing some time on your, on the organization's operations?
Bobbi: I think one of the biggest benefits is running your nonprofit. Like a business and nonprofits are unique. We have we're mission focused and, and are working for the greater good and investing in that infrastructure. Always save time. We'll save time later. So I like to share with clients, they don't like to have too much process, too much structure. Have a little bit it's, it's good for employee morale because people like to be able to refer to things, to have a good sense of how things are done. It doesn't have to be a 95 page handbook, but some guidelines for how things work. So there's that investment for the organization and saving time and the investment in your team for retention purposes of giving them some structure. So they know what to expect and what they can look for in the future. For me, that's one of the biggest ones, the financial and.
Carol: Yeah. And it's interesting that you mentioned employee morale because I was working with an organization recently on strategic planning and, and it was an organization that had started with one person and the founder. Who's just very visionary and doesn't need a lot of structure or she has all the processes cause she built them all. And as she's built her team, there was this need to actually get clear about what each person was doing. Get clear about, what is the step-by-step for this process or that process. And, and I think because it wasn't a need for her. She didn't necessarily see it. But once folks said, this is what we need, they were able to identify who in the team is actually good at this stuff and can get us where we need to go in terms of building those structures so that people know where their lane is and how they can contribute.
Bobbi: Even for those folks who liked them who liked the freer form structure, you can have that in other ways in your work, but don't when it comes to how you structure positions and responsibilities and how people are responsible and accountable for their time, all of these different aspects, it, it gives people a sense of, of some structure and it, it is really helpful for morale.
Carol: And a lot of your work really involves how organizations work with, as you're with teams, with your people, recruiting, managing their HR processes, and certainly with the pandemic. And we're recording this right in May of 2021, so things are starting to shift perhaps, or people are starting to think about a shift away from remote work, but a lot of organizations had to make that shift really quickly. They may not have had practices or policies around telecommuting or remote work. What would you say has where, where have you seen organizations do a good job of, of that and helped their team really thrive in that remote work environment?
Bobbi: There were a couple of things. One of the biggest ones was understanding that each person was having. A different experience in this pandemic from an emote, a personal, emotional perspective, and then their own home family situation, whatever that might be. And you started to see folks who were in a shared apartment and there was only one room with good internet and they were taking turns using that room to be on meetings. And, and then also of course, families with kids and balancing all of that. So really understanding what people's limitations were, and how can the organization still get done? What they needed to get done while supporting whatever those limitations were. And then similar to what we were talking about with operational processes is coming up with some level of guidelines for staff, because it didn't work from what I saw, when organizations said do the best that you can. People were looking for a little bit more than that. So it was even if it was around. Hours or how they communicated about their schedule, but providing some guidelines of what the organization is expecting during this time, what flexibility there is when people should plan on using pay time off versus this is flexible and you can just balance out your schedule. So really providing those kinds of guidelines and then. A third thing is keeping up with the personal aspects that you don't get when you're over video or over phone and being intentional about making human connections and with the pandemic. We also had a lot of unrest happening in the country, along with that. And that also was impacting people. So making space to talk about those things or not talk about them if people didn't want to, but at least acknowledging it was happening and people could be having experiences around those things and wanting to create open lines of communication.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's, I mean, all those differences always have been there in terms of how different people were experiencing the workplace and their work and the team. But certainly, this past year has just amplified that in the same way that it's amplified so many other things as you're talking about. And Yeah, I think, I've heard a lot of people talk about while you, it's so hard to have the human connection or those, those accidental, you bump into someone things that happened naturally in offices when you're all there together. And it's, and that's certainly true. And at the same time, I think there's something. That this experience of having to work remotely gives a gift to organizations when they can start to think about how to build that in more intentionally and for everyone, because I feel like maybe it happened for some people accidentally just serendipitously, but it may not have, it may not have actually been the experience for everybody in the office, but people assumed that it was because everybody was together.
Bobbi: That's a great point. Yes. And even just thinking about how some people really love face to face interaction and like being on zoom or some other type of video chat where other folks need a break from that. And seeing organizations give people the space for that. If you're not required to be on video, let people know I'm going to take a break. I've had back to back video calls all day and just giving people space to do. The advocate for what worked for them, so they can be bringing their best. And that works for the individuals and for the organization.
Carol: And as organizations think about shifting back Or shifting towards some new, new version of working whether it's a hundred percent remote or everybody back in the office or somewhere in between, what are you, how are you seeing organizations start to think about that transition?
Bobbi: People are starting to talk about it. Now there's a lot of information gathering and I'm hearing a lot of eyeing. September is the return to physical offices. If they exist, even if it's in some sort of hybrid way, but gathering information from staff, what is your life going to look like? What is your comfort level? Without disclosing specifics. Do you have health concerns about potentially returning to the office, all of these different factors of gathering the information and then coming up with really clear guidelines. This is what we're expecting. This is when we'll be phasing things in when we might resume travel, and just giving staff really clear guidelines about what could be coming and making sure there's good communication. There's also an aspect of. Not just to be preparing physically to come back to the office, but mental preparation from all of this time that we've been at home and in a different space where some people have been sick and lost family members and friends and people have been through all types of experiences during this time and thinking of ways to make space. Or coming back together, coming up with maybe some mental health support system within the organization, making sure people are aware of what their benefits are related to that through insurance and other services. A lot of times insurance packages like life insurance and short-term disability have those employee assistance programs as well. And making sure employees know what's available to them, how they can get help, who they can talk to and making it a safe place. If people are having a challenge coming back and really struggling.
Carol: And, and I mean, most nonprofits are relatively small and oftentimes don't necessarily have a dedicated HR person. How can, how can those small organizations work towards building some of those systems?
Bobbi: I say, just relying on insurance providers and brokers, depending on how their policies are set up. Those individuals very often have all the information about what those programs are. Probably have flyers template, emails, things like that that can easily be sent out. That wouldn't create a lot of labor burden on the smaller organizations. There is also a significant amount of information and data out there and blogs and websites. Providing samples of how template, emails, or examples of how people can create programs for coming back online and providing information for staff. So there's some light touch options that can really be helpful for small teams.
Carol: Yeah, and I, I really appreciate your point about prepping, not just the logistics of, where are we going to put desks and what's the cleaning procedure going to be, and, all of those kinds of things, but also that mental preparation or. Even just starting to, maybe it's not even preparation. Maybe it's just acknowledging that it's going to be weird and awkward for a little while. People aren't used to being together and, are you going to, is it okay to, are you, how are you going to greet? Are you going to shake someone's hand? Are you going to bump their elbow? Are you gonna, how do we do these meetings? Are we all gonna sit in the conference room? Like we used to, or be a part and then to try to think about how to manage a hybrid situation, I think is just much more challenging. I mean, I managed that before the pandemic. I worked in an organization where I had remote staff, but it was so out of the ordinary that it was very hard to get folks who are. At the central location to remember that, a remote staff person was involved in the meeting. So when I, when I could have influence on the meeting set up, I would make sure that we use the video and had them up on screen so that people actually remembered they were there. Instead of just being on a conference call, they might, they might as well not have been at the meeting.
Bobbi: Right. Yes. And there's also that technology aspect. Can you bring that up when going back into the office? There's still going to be a distributed team structure and thinking through how systems will continue to support the work and the humans doing the work.
Carol: So many organizations, some hiring or onboarding on pause thinking, well, well, let's just wait this out. And, but, as it's gone on longer, organizations have had to bring people on while they're working remotely. What have you seen work well in terms of hiring folks during this period, and then, then that onboarding process.
Bobbi: Interesting because the way that I approach hiring hasn't changed significantly from before, except that certain phases of interview processes are over video right now, rather than in person. I think the best thing any organization can do is really think through clearly, what are the competencies that we're looking for in somebody, those skills and, and that level of experience, what are the things we must have? What are the things that are nice to have and coming up with a clear, readable, digestible job description. That's fair. And, and isn't a wishlist, but it's more the actual job. And I really like a process that supports each candidate who is invited for various stages of interviews to get to know the culture of the organization and, and investing time upfront. I like to do phone interviews as a first round, not over video, but just over the phone, have a conversation without worrying about cameras and invest about an hour in those, and really get to know candidates’ resumes. You understand that they've got the qualifications that we're looking for based on work experience, but let's get to know them as individuals and understand the stories that have helped them get to where they are. So I like that upfront investment. I think it always returns better. Pool of candidates and then investing in an equitable process where you have the same hiring panel. If there's a panel style interview and the second phase of interview and making it really clear to candidates, what they can expect and what the timeline is. So the biggest challenge of. Hiring right now is if you can not meet somebody in person, a lot of people rely on that to make a final decision about a candidate. Are they going to work with our culture? They've got the right skill set, and we think they're going to succeed in this role, but will they fit in with our team? And so I'm seeing some meet and greet style interviews getting added in. Maybe it's a handful of staff members they're not interviewing, but it's, let's get together and get to know each other, almost like a virtual coffee as a way of getting to know candidates and have a more that more social feel. So that's one thing that I'm seeing that's different. Otherwise I'm just not seeing, I haven't seen a new trend to something that's brand new and hiring that really wasn't there before.
Carol: Well, that's, I really appreciate that. You say that actually it hasn't changed a huge amount and what's important. Hasn't necessarily changed. going to what you've said at the very beginning, just taking the time to identify what the competencies are. In the role what's actually needed. What's a must have, and what's nice to have right. Cause I've certainly seen so many job descriptions where there's such a wishlist that I'm like, even the superheroes and the Avengers couldn't do this job and we, what are they thinking? So what are some of the steps that organizations can take and teams can take to, to really identify what those competencies are.
Bobbi: A lot of conversation and there are two, I guess there are two paths. If it's an existing role and someone is moving on and they're replacing a team member taking a good look at the original job description, did that work well? Was it realistic? Does it really cover what this person did and how can we adjust it to fit what we're really needing thinking through what are the outcomes? What does success look like in three months, six months, a year into that position. And I think that's what can really help identify those competencies. And I also think keeping that to six to eight competencies is. Efficient. If you try to go above and beyond that, we get back more to that Avengers style person who maybe doesn't exist, of having everything on that list. So keeping it realistic and coming up with definitions for those competencies, there are existing. Definitions out there, but coming up with ones that are meaningful to the organization, what does being a clear communicator look like to us at this particular organization? What does being a superior relationship builder look like to us? And being able to convey that into questions that you ask the candidates is an important part too.
Carol: Can you say more about how you link up those two things?
Bobbi: Let's say that relationship building is one of the competencies and you define what that means coming up with some questions that 's an X asking for a specific story about how somebody built a relationship, maybe with someone that the organization was struggling with, maybe it's a funder. Maybe it's a relationship that needs to change because the person who was managing that relationship before was struggling with it, or wasn't being very successful. So asking for examples of that and the outcomes, and, and also trying to understand what somebody might do differently in a situation. So I like scenario based questions for understanding, really trying to get at. Where are they within this, within that competency in terms of their expertise
Carol: And how have you seen organizations be able to convey what their, what their culture is because, too often, I've, I've. Ask that question when I've been in the interview process and people are like, well, you'll know it. When you see it, I'm like, well, that's not helpful. Can you say a little bit more?
Bobbi: Yes. If the organization doesn't have an existing statement about their culture, that might be in the handbook. I like to start with talking about them. What's your compensation philosophy, because I think a lot of things trickle out from that. What's important to you as an organization. How do you define salaries? How do you determine what additional benefits you'll add into the package and what amount are you contributing to that? I think that can set a tone also talking through what our expectations are around let's say things like dress code. If those things still exist, some organizations still do have them or still have expectations for external facing events. Making that super clear that really can help you understand how as well, my disorganization B or how maybe stiff might this organization be and where might a person fit in along there? I think asking when, when I want to understand the culture, what type of social events do you have? How do you get to know your new staff members? When they come on board, do you have celebrations for birthdays or work anniversaries? So trying to understand how they invest also in staff, after they've come on board, do they do 90 day? Check-ins: what are their performance evaluations? Like? All of that feeds into what the culture is. So I ask a ton of questions.
Carol: That's great and about really specific things. Right. So it's not just generally describing your culture to me, but describing this piece and this piece of this piece and from all of it, I can really get a picture of what that adds up to. So, yeah. What would you recommend to clients in terms of successfully onboarding, onboarding new hires, especially now, again, with us being in this remote work environment,
Bobbi: Depending on the size of the organization, figuring out what's the checklist: who will do what, what do we want our first interaction with our newest team member to look like after they've accepted the offer. And I would say communicating more than you might, if the person we're going to be showing up in in-person and making sure they understand this is what your orientation looks like. By the end of week two, we expect you'll have. Had exposure to all of our systems. You may not know them exactly in and out yet, but you'll have gone through this checklist of learning, to use these tools and making it super clear how, what systems they need to have set up at home, how equipment will get to them.
If they have any home office expenses, which I'm seeing, many organizations get an extra reimbursement for that for internet and home costs. And having a plan, making sure that person's supervisor, if that's, if that's relevant is having personal check-ins with them. And that there's a process for that person getting to know the organization and their job, and what's expected of them and really trying to incorporate them as much as possible. So it could be different depending on each organization. What, how many systems and tools they have or how many staff they have on board. And it's a really important thing I think, to have. Touch points with each staff member as well for any new person, not just to a staff meeting, but maybe just 15 minute quick coffees with people or a quick slack video to say hi so that people get connected personally to the rest of the team.
Carol: And I could imagine going through a process of trying to figure out what all those things are and creating that checklist could actually be useful for people who've been on staff for a while. Like what are all the systems that we're using and how do they interact with each other? How does each person see their role and how it connects? I could see that being a really fruitful conversation, regardless of an onboarding process
Bobbi: That’s a great point. And a lot of times organizations will have resources that they launch. And maybe because there isn't a point person reminding staff that they have access to it, it's really when new staff come on board, that they're reminded, oh yes, we have this great shared Kindle library with 50 books in it that would help anybody who's interested in learning about various professional skills development. And I do think that's a great idea. If the organizations for arts, a great benefit, rather than staff existing staff, to see those resources if the organization is big enough, there might be an opportunity for individual staff members to be the champion of certain pieces. There's a, maybe a tools person and maybe this is how we do our staff meetings. Let me introduce you to that. And, having people be the. The go-to person and having that list be shared with the original, with a staff member, excuse me, joining the team. Here's who to go to for what? And To get a really good orientation to the organization.
Carol: Well, the idea of splitting it up and having it not be just a siloed experience, so that only, not, not only distributes the, the, the process of either putting that together or implementing it, but it also, with each person that's that champion, the new person gets, starts to build a relationship with them as well.
Bobbi: Yes. I think for individual staff members throughout the opportunity to take the lead on things like that, too, it's an investment opportunity for them as well. They get to show off their knowledge of the organization and take the lead on something. So it's a great, I think retention opportunity as well.
Carol: So on each episode, I like to play a game by asking one random icebreaker question. And since we mentioned the Avengers if you could have any superpower, what would you choose and why
Bobbi: I think I would choose the power of invisibility. I really liked to observe, and I liked the idea of being able to observe without being noticed and being able to use that for good, maybe. Interject if I need to, or take information back to somebody else reported. I don't know, but I like that idea. And also being able to disappear quickly if needed
Carol: I love it. I love it. Yeah. I've often thought, well, I'd love to have been a fly on the wall and that means they didn't see what really happened versus the report out afterwards. So that's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Bobbi: Got a couple of really fun projects coming up.
One is. It's fun because it's collaborating with a friend who, with her firm I'm going to support a project on hiring a new team member for one of their non-profit clients. And so just getting to know their process and bringing, merging our processes and plus getting together. I'm excited about that for one of my longer term clients we're working on job trajectories. They've been growing as an organization and. Haven't had an exact map. How do you grow at this organization? What does it take to get a promotion? What does that look like? So we're working on those trajectories and salary bands and making that all transparent within the organization, a growth path. And then the other is expanding voluntary benefits for one of my clients. And thinking about what are the host of things that staff might like to have access to. It's not something the organization’s necessarily paying for, but they'll pay for the administration of those benefits. And we often have. Life insurance that you can add onto accidents, things related to health. They're also financial planning, types of services, health, and wellness, and even things like pet insurance to make available with your people. If you're maybe getting a better deal because you're working with one provider. So I'm excited about expanding those offerings.
Carol: That's awesome. I love the idea of the growth trajectory, because I think so often in the sector, certainly if I look back at my career, most of the ways in which I grew, I ended up always having to hop to a new organization. And, there wasn't a clear path. Within the organization to, to, build on what I already had, had done and, and build on the work. So that's, that's really cool to start being a little more intentional about that.
Bobbi: I think so too. And not everybody wants to move up and be a supervisor for other people. They maybe are expanding their skills and can take on. More advanced work as they grow, but maybe that's not for them. And if it's possible to create those types of positions, make that clear, this can exist. And that's what it looks like. And that might impact pay scale, I'm not sure, but it could, but just making that super clear to staff, I think a lot of times people might not ask those questions. Do I have to be promoted and become a supervisor? And these organizations end up losing great folks because they haven't had that conversation.
Carol: Right. I mean, some people that they don't necessarily want to move up in, in that moving to a supervisory role, they really just want to go deeper and deeper into what they're, what they're doing as an individual contributor. So that's a great point. Well, thank you so much. It's been great having this conversation.
Bobbi: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate you inviting me. It's been fun.
Carol: All right.
I appreciated how Bobbi described her process for hiring and how in many ways it has not changed a lot even in the past year beyond final interviews being via video instead of in person. Her process starts with defining the competencies needed for the role. And she nudges organizations to not create the wish list job description that essentially describes a super human. That first step of getting clear about what is actually really essential with a job. This could include questioning whether the qualifications you have required in the past are really needed – i.e. does the person really need a college degree to do this job? Or a Masters? What is essential and what is nice to have. And being consistent across interviews to aim for a more equitable process.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Until next time!
In episode 23 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Engel discussed include:
Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, is Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting. For more than twenty years, Elizabeth has helped associations grow in membership, marketing, communications, public presence, and especially revenue, which is what Spark is all about. She speaks and writes frequently on a variety of topics in association management. When she's not helping associations grow, Elizabeth loves to dance, listen to live music, cook, and garden.
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to Mission Impact, the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
My guest today is Elizabeth Weaver Engel. Elizabeth is Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting where she helps associations grow. Elizabeth periodically writes white papers on topics of interest to association staff and board members. These white papers go in depth and provide interesting and actionable insights on the topics she explores. On this episode, Elizabeth and I delve into the topic of digital transformation, the focus of her upcoming white paper that she co-wrote with Maddie Grant. In our conversation we explore what digital transformation is and why it is important to associations. We also talk about some of the key differences between associations and for profit companies that most of the literature to date about digital transformation has focused on and the implications of those differences.
Welcome Elizabeth. It's great to have you on the podcast today.
Elizabeth Engel: Thank you so much, Caroline. We're very happy to be here. So
Carol: I'd like to start out with the question. What, what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say motivates you or what's your, why?
Elizabeth: You mean, like in the, in the largest sense of why, why do I work in associations? You're why am I in the nonprofit space? It goes back to when I was in graduate school. So initially I'd gone to graduate school at the University of Virginia. I was studying political theory. I was intending to be a professor of political theory. That's not really a job that exists anymore. Even back then that did that job didn't really exist anymore. Even 25 years. And so, when I, when I decided to bail out of the PhD program and do the terminal masters and I was graduating, and then I was like, okay, well now what and we were living in Charlottesville, which is lovely, but small lot of overeducated people running around there who don't want to leave. I was one of them And so I started looking for work in DC, the first interviews, God we're with for-profit companies. And I realized pretty quickly that I just could not bring myself to care about making the widget 5 cents cheaper than the other guy and selling it for 5 cents. More like I just. Did not care about that. And so I thought, okay, well, clearly non-profit industry is, is for me. And I started applying only for nonprofit jobs. Got my first job. I was applying both in sort of fundraising calls, oriented organizations and associations, got my first job working in an association, my first capital R capital J Real Job and never looked back.
Carol: It's so funny that you talked about being a professor and I sounds like you got a little further along that path than I did, but that was definitely my idea in college that I would be a history professor, but then I was working on my my final project not a dissertation, cause it was just a BA I don't know the big paper that I had to write at the end of my, at end of end of my degree. And I was doing some research in the library, in the big central library in Philadelphia. And reading these old magazines ‘cause I was doing a project on basically how women were being told how to be mothers advice to mothers at the turn of the century Germany. So I was reading women's magazines from the turn of the century Germany. I realized that I was, I had a mad dust allergy. So I was like, clearly my life's work needs to not be in archives. That's going to be a real problem. Yes. Yes. So, so being a professor, being a history professor was not, not going to be what I was going to be doing. So I had to figure it, figure out something else. And I did. My first job was with a for-profit company and it was When I helped out w w when, when, of course it was all clients, all comers, we were helping people get on talk shows and it was after that, there was like, no, if I'm going to be promoting things, if I'm going to be publicizing, if I'm going to be moving some cause forward, you know I want to have it be something that I believe in. So that's when I made the shift to the nonprofit sector. Yeah. Yeah. So one of the things that I really appreciate about your work is your generosity in creating free, very substantive, white papers on a variety of topics. And, and you've, I think maybe it's going back to that drive to research that originally would've been, would have been in that professor realm. ‘Cause you really go all over the place and, and, and dive into a lot of different topics. And I think actually, It's where we originally met because you did an interview with me as a per case study for one of your white papers.
Elizabeth: Yeah. When you were at NAFSA.
Carol: Yes. Yeah. So around design thinking, lean start up. Yeah. So, so how did you get started doing those?
Elizabeth: Oh, yeah. So that was yes, you are correct. This definitely relates to my interest in research and writing. And there's a range of length, I guess, Israeli types of writing, everything from tweets, obviously, of course, all the way up to books and the length that I always liked was the extended essay. Something that falls into that 25 to 40 page range where you can, you can really have an idea and develop it, but you haven't committed yourself to a 400 page book. And so when I was first launching star back in 2012 I was part consulting. One of the things that I was, I was thinking about is, okay, well I'm going to need to do stuff. To get my name out there. And, and I had already started doing some of that in the association world prior to launching the business. I had been really involved in training people for the certified association executive exam through ASAE. For like the period from right after I earned it myself 2004 through 2010, I was super involved with that and that got me started on the speaking track for ASAE and I, and I had had, and other associations and I, and I had had employers who were supportive of that. Even while I was, I was still an association executive working directly for associations myself and had been doing it association blog for a number of years at that point. And, and that was all great. Like I was enjoying all that planning to continue all of that and whatnot. But I was looking for something a little bit more substantive, I guess, or a little bit more something that has, has a longer shelf life, I guess that's, that's the best way to put it, right? Because if you're speaking at a conference, well, that's great for the people who go to the conference, but what about everybody else? Right. and, and blog posts tend to be somewhat ephemeral. So I was looking for something that would have a little bit more, more staying power to it. So it was a fall of 2012 and I got contacted by a state society to come and speak at their conference. And so we're talking about potential topics that I could cover. and did they want something that was sort of more, personal story inspirational or did they want them to be, it was a little bit more research-based and they, they said, all we know are, are. Opening keynote is going to be a little bit more of that personal story. So like, let's go with something a little bit more. Research-based we're bouncing some ideas around and I was like, well, look, what, what about this, this concept of information overload and, and content curation, and this is something that we're all dealing with. Both personally for ourselves and also as association professionals, trying to deal with our members and others audiences, you know? So what if I dive into that and look into that a little bit more and then, and then make the case for associations to begin focusing less on content creation and more on content duration. They're like, Oh yeah, that sounds, that sounds really interesting. So that ended up being the first white paper and I revisited that topic for the white paper that I turned out last year. Because so much had changed in the intervening eight years with regards to both the volume of information that we're dealing with, and also the association environment for doing content curation. But people are still interested in the topics. So I was like, Hm, I really need some updated information here and ended up revisiting that. But anyway so I, I went ahead and created that white paper for the event. And I, I will say I. Bombed at the safe society event. I have never bombed at a speaking gig like that before or since. But we did learn a very valuable lesson, which was that their audience really preferred, inspirational personal stories. But the thing that I took away from that other than, than, quizzing my, my potential. Speaking employers a little bit more closely about their audiences of what they really wanted was, Hey, this white paper thing is a pretty interesting idea. And I think this might be my thing, my thing that I'm going to create, that is that more lasting longer shelf life way of contributing to the body of knowledge and the association industry, which turned out to be the case.
Carol: Yeah. And now you have a, Oh, I'm going to have to wait a second. That changed something on one of the recordings and it started to give an echo. Yeah. So now you have quite the body of work yourself in terms of all of those white papers. And the one that you're currently working on is focusing on digital transformation. Could you say a little bit about what this is and why it's important to organizations.
Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. So, as you mentioned, there's now a pretty significant library. This is number 13, which I think is lucky. Yeah. And so, the, the topic, and, and as you mentioned earlier, it's across a really wide variety of topics. Because I basically look for something that, a major trend or something like that, that I think is either impacting or is about to impact the association industry, where I. I think that we're either not really paying attention to it the way we need to, or, or like with the blockchain white paper, it's something that's really nascent. When I have an opportunity to educate people about this or it's something where the existing literature and advice that's out there. Is maybe missing something and that's very much what was going on with taking on digital transformation. Digital transformation is not a new topic. This is something that organizations have been working on for at least six or eight years, in, in most cases. And so of course that, that immediately begs the question. Well then why, why bother right about this? Right? This is one of those cases where. In my view, the existing literature and advice and case studies and all that stuff that are out there about digital transformation or are missing something fundamental about associations. And that's actually part of the reason why I wanted to work with Maddie grant for this particular white paper. So, as you know pretty much all of my white papers. I worked with a co-author, we look to feature other experts in interviews within the white papers. We do case studies of organizations that are doing work in that area, et cetera. But, I matched my coauthor to my topic. And so, the thing that. Associations have not that that no one's been paying attention to for associations or writing about for associations is the issue of culture change with regards to digital transformation. So there's, one of Maddy's favorite sayings is digital transformation is culture change plus vendor selection. And the technology of culture change is, or of, of digital transformation is very important, obviously. But we do tend to have a little bit of shiny object syndrome and get very focused on the tech pieces of this. And, and we don't think enough about the culture change that's required in order to actually be a digitally transformed organization. And that's where the problem is for associations. The majority of the work. That is ecstatic about digital transformation from a for-profit perspective. That's why they miss that associations are unique. Our cultures are unique, are our relationships with our I'm making air quotes here. So people in the podcast onesies, but our, our customers are very different. A member of an association is not the same as a member of Costco. And all of the digital transformation work that's out there is about how do you deal with a member of Costco, not how do you deal with a member of an association? And so Maddie and I saw a real opportunity to say, okay, look, there's, there's good stuff out there about, you know the tech piece of this. And we do summarize a little bit of that in the white paper. There's good stuff out there about the techniques of this. Let's talk about what makes association culture unique. And then some of the kinds of things that you need to think about as an association executive in dealing with culture change in order to do that digital transformation to truly become a transformed organization, to one of the One of the, the experts that we spoke with for the white paper is a guy named Martin mocker, who a lot of association folks are familiar with the work of Dr. Jeannie Ross because she's been a speaker at some association tech conferences. But they write about digital transformation and the distinction that they make. And, and this is where the transformation piece happens. Is between being digitized and being digital and being digitized is the piece where, you're, you're grabbing all those shiny objects and you're doing exactly what you've always done, just using technology. So it's better in some way. And it tends to start with an internal focus. Like we're going to fix our internal processes and start. doing more, less stuff, analog and more stuff, digital internally. And then it works its way out into customer facing stuff. I remember facing stuff. But if you, if you want to be able to make the leap from getting some cool tech, let's do some stuff in a digital way that we used to do in an analog way versus. Becoming a transformed organization. It's, it's that leap to going digital that you have to make. That's where the culture piece comes in.
Carol: Well, you packed a lot in there. So I wanted to dial back to a couple of different things you talked about. Well, one was interesting and I'd love for you to unpack a little bit more about what you see as those unique aspects of an association and what makes them different from for-profit organizations.
Elizabeth: Sure and for folks who've been in associations for a number of years, this is all going to sound familiar, but it starts at the top. Right? Our relationships to our boards of directors are very different, first of all, plenty of for-profits are privately owned even though even those that are publicly traded that have a board of directors, their boards are very different than our boards. It's a very different relationship. And the board of directors of an association is much more directly the boss of the CEO or ED and the staff than happens in a for-profit company. So, it begins right at the top. The other thing is our, our, again - air quotes for the podcast folks. Our customers are members. They own the organization. If you're a quote unquote “member of Costco,” you don't have an ownership stake in Costco. Right. if you're, if you're an Amazon prime member, you don't have an ownership stake at Amazon, right? You truly, they're calling it a membership and that's all very lovely and it implies relationship, but you're a customer. And, and this is not to say that associations don't have customers. We absolutely do. But the membership relationship is what makes associations unique. And so, all of them. All of those pieces of the role of the board, the board to the CEO, executive director, the board of the staff, the members, how they relate as owners of the organization, all of this gives them a very different stake in decisions that the organization makes. And it also complicates the culture change picture because you have people who are not staff, but have a much greater investment than somebody who's. Stopping by your store to buy a book or whatever is in the organization. And so, that all has to be taken into account. When you're talking about intentionally designing your culture and then intentionally creating culture change.
Carol: Yeah. A couple of things come to mind there. You mentioned that you had interviewed me as part of that case study when I was at NAFSA and that's an association that's. Serves the international educator field. But what was, what was really interesting about that group? And I worked for a number of different organizations, different associations, and I'd never seen this before NAFSA. I don't know if it's still true today, but at least that the generation of members that I was working with would call themselves NAFSAs. And absence, like they've made a country they've made an identity about being part of that organization. So that sense of identifying with the organization, being part of it, being, seeing it, as I'm a member, I am part of this community. It is integral to how I think about my work. And I have some ownership stake in it. Even though I don't know that a lot of folks necessarily. Thought about it exactly that way. But they also, but in many ways they acted that way. They acted that they had that relationship. So, yeah. So super interesting about how, it can just, it's not just sending a check to get a membership, to get a magazine, when it, when it's, when it, well, honestly, when it's done well, right. When, when there really is that sense of identity and not just being a consumer.
Elizabeth: The reason that people associate is because they're trying to accomplish something that they have found either extremely difficult or impossible to associate on their own. So they're gathering with other people with similar interests. Well the very nature of trying to do that means that this has gotta be a long-term commitment, maybe not the rest of your life, but certainly, longer than making a consumer type purchase. And exactly as you, as you just express that can over time. Maybe not for everybody, but certainly for some people it becomes a part of your identity.
Carol: Yeah. And I also, what you were talking about made me think about just really any tech related project where you're trying to bring in something new, have people maybe use a tool, a new tool that will help them do the, hopefully, Obviously the idea usually is to help people do their job easier, better make things better for members for, for constituents. And at the same time folks get very focused on the technology. You get very focused on what are the features that we want, are we picking the right. The right vendor, are we picking the right software to do this job for getting that really what's way more important is after that decision is made, how are you helping people actually learn how to use the thing and integrated into how they're doing their work and, and accepted, adopted. And so it's not just this, shiny object you bought it. And then it's like, okay, now it's gathering dust. Well,
Elizabeth: and, it's, it's funny that you would use that example because that is a further illustration of the difference between a consumer relationship and a membership relationship. Right. if you think about it again, just as a sort of a regular person, your own experience, whatever, whatever vendor you like, that you, that you go to online regularly, they make a bunch of changes to their website and you're like, ah, I gotta figure out how to do the thing again. Like whatever thing it is you go to them to do. Like, I gotta figure out the thing again. Okay. Whatever association, I know that if we make significant changes to our websites and our members don't know, I like them, they're just gonna kinda shrug and be like, Oh, well I just have to, I have to figure out how to find the thing that I normally do here and whatever, it'll be fine. You know? My favorite example for that is like every time my, the, the airline that I usually fly that has where I have on my frequent flyer stuff. Like they make changes. I'm like, ah, crap. Okay. I'll figure it out. It's fine. Right. I don't call them up and chew them out on the phone. If I don't like it. If you do something like that for your members. They absolutely feel like they own the organization and they will call you up or email you and tell you what they think. Right. Because it's not just, Oh, the powers that be on high have done this. And I, the poor consumer, have no power in this situation. That's not it at all. Right. I'm a member. I'm a part owner of this organization. I have a say.
Carol: Yeah. And one of the things you talked about was the difference between being digitized and digital. Can you, can you say a little bit more again about what, what you see as the difference between those two and why that's important?
Elizabeth: Sure. And for people who really want to dig into this, I would definitely recommend that they check out the book. So I am getting the title of it right now. It is designed for digital, how to architect your business for sustained success. So that's by Dr. Jeanne Ross Cynthia and Martin Mocker who's the guy that we interviewed for the white paper
Carol: We’ll put links, we'll put links to that and the paper.
Elizabeth: Yeah. So the, the, the difference is going, B becoming digitized has to do with I'm taking analog functions. And I am now doing the exact same analog functions I was doing before only now I'm using technology to do them. So a great example of this is where I first started my career in association management. It was the mid nineties and we were doing all of our membership join and renew. Everything was entirely analog. Paper form, mail it in with your check to the lock box, the bank, kind of, deal. And yeah, mid nineties, right. That's pretty typical. We worked at associations and were sort of just venturing onto the web. We did have a website. It was your typical mid nineties. Brochureware so our, I arrive on the scene and I'm like, Hmm, I'll bet. Our members would like to be able to join and renew online. Well, let me, let me set up a test of this speaking of lean startup methodology, right. I just threw up a form that dumped all the information to an email. Yes. As a matter of fact, I was dumping unencrypted credit card numbers across the internet into an email that we then had to. Process, like we would print them out to the mall, to the lockbox for processing on the back end. So it was still a little analog there. But from the front end, from the, from the member's perspective, it looks quick digital. And so, that was, that was my, my test to say, Hey, like, nobody has this as a built-in feature of their association management system yet let's find out if it's worth building it. And in fact, it was like our, our members were very much people who wanted to be able to do this online. Then we had data. We were like, yes, we will pay to go ahead and build this because it's going to be worthwhile. But my point is that it’s becoming digitized. Right? We were, we had this analog membership program. We, now you can join and renew online, but it was, it's still the exact same membership. Like we weren't changing anything about the membership. We were just saying, Oh, well, instead of. Mailing in your form with your check to the lockbox, which by the way, you can still do if you want to do this online with your credit card and be fancy and fast, we can, we can do that. Right. That's becoming digitized, becoming digital, has to do with a mind shift. it’s actually the construction specifications Institute story from the, from the the white paper, their, their crosswalk platform illustrates this pretty well. It's about shifting your mindset to say no. What we are going to do is we are going to think differently about our members and our other audiences about how we interact with them, about how they want to interact with each other, being aware of what the technology enables at this point to create entirely new ways. Entirely new programs, products, and services, entirely new ways of building networks and relationships, entirely new ways of creating knowledge, entirely new ways of organizing ourselves, entirely new ways of creating group action that are digital from the start. That to me, that's the transformation bit because it, because you have to change your mind about all this stuff. It’s changing business processes as well, and it's changing product development and all that, but, and this gets back to culture, change, change. It's a complete shift in the way you think about things and view the world.
Carol: Yeah. And what I appreciated about that story. And, and if I can, let's see if I get it right. In terms of my summary, they saw a problem that all their members were having. The problem wasn't necessarily an in, in their work. So out, out in their world, not necessarily about how the association works, but how their members were doing work in the world with a whole bunch of other folks who weren't necessarily members of that association, but lots of different other types of professionals that their members had to work with and how they all had their own way of I guess one Version that everyone could relate to would be the multiple times. You have to fill out your medical history at every doctor that you go to. Right? So all of these different people were, were, were managing information, managing inventory in different ways and had different systems, different technology. So they didn't build something to take over all of those things, but they built a bridge. Building those, what are they called? APIs. Yep.
Elizabeth: Advanced Programming interfaces.
Carol: Yep. Right? So that translation to go back and forth between those different systems, which really transformed how people were doing their work in the field.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And, and honestly, I mean, this is something anybody who's ever done, any home renovation project could totally relate to this. Right. like, so construction specifications Institute, this is guidelines the, the things, the regulations that keep large-scale construction processes. And ensure that you have a good result on the end bridge that doesn't fall down a size skyscraper that doesn't collapse, et cetera. Right. And so anybody who, anybody who's ever done a home renovation project knows how this goes, right? You've got your general contractor that you've got a zillion subcontractors, they're all doing different pieces of the project. And they all have their own systems and their own processes and their own ways of doing things and, and all that. And, unless you are a crazy person and decide to act as your own general contractor, that's what your general contractor is doing is managing all of that for you, right? They're not telling the carpenter or the tile guy or the electrician or the plumber or whatever, how to do their job, or what processes they should use. They manage it for you. Well, CSI construction specifications Institute saw the opportunity to do it. Similar thing for large scale construction projects, where there's everybody from architects and engineers to, all, all of the other types of things that you would think about that would be involved in building something like a skyscraper or a tunnel or a bridge or whatever. And they saw an opportunity to create that shared platform for them to be passing information back and forth so that everybody can still use. The systems that make them happy and the programs that they like to use and can still manage the information internally the way they like to. But all of a sudden, we're all sharing it across this, this bridge platform where it cuts down on waste to time, it reduces risk. It cuts down on errors, and, and this has been it's, it's a completely different way of thinking because. Carol as you just articulated, most of those other players are not and will never be CSI members. But this is an opportunity to create something that serves the entire industry vertical soup to nuts.
Carol: What'd you say are some of the either misconceptions or mistakes that associations make when they. think, okay, well we need to, maybe we've started on some digitizing, but we really want to shift more to this larger transformation moving towards the digital process. Yeah.
Elizabeth: The most obvious one is the shiny object syndrome. Right. Like we noticed something going on and so we grab a piece of technology and slap it on there and we're like, we're, we're done. Yay. Go us. Yeah, that's, that's not gonna transform your organization. That's the thing to get you in the trouble that you mentioned earlier. Oh, and we had this great idea and if no one's using it we've, we've slapped some technology technological bandaid on a problem that we noticed and, and so I think that's one of the main challenges that we face is, you've got to think about this in a much more strategic way. One of the things that Maddie and I stress in the white paper is that you don't want to have a strategy for digital or a strategy for mobile or a strategy for social or a strategy for AI or whatever, right? Like you, you have your larger organizational strategy and you're looking for how to do things like mobile and social and web and AI and internet of things and data analytics and all that. Like how do they fit into and contribute to your larger organizational strategy. And so as I always try to do with, with the white papers, the final section of this is very much the, okay. All of this information that you've shared with me was lovely and interesting. And I see what you're thinking here, but like, what do I actually do? And so, and we, we lay it right out in a very clear series of steps. You have to start with assessing where you are, if you don't, if you, if you don't know where you are and where you're trying to go, any path is the right path and the wrong path. And you're going to end up in places that you had no necessary intent of ending up. So you've got it. You've got to know where you are right now, before you can figure out where you're going to go. And some associations when they do that, they're going to discover, what. We've got work to do on digitization. First, one of our other stories, the independent community bankers association was very much what my friend, her boss, who works there discovered when he, when he was hired, like we have to, we have to digitize first. Like there's some internal stuff going on here that we're going to have to fix before we can look to trains. Right. But because he assessed, he knew that. Then you got to move on to things like getting support resources. You need to look for strategic areas where all those digital technologies, social, mobile, mobile, mobile data analytics, all the stuff that I just mentioned could contribute, could help, could help fix things. You're going to have to take a look at what's going on with your legacy processes, because you may find yourself in that. Digitization work to do first before we can go digital. Right. But you need to, you need to take a look at that. Then you're going to have to, in addition to getting some sort of leadership support and financial resources, you're also going to have to assemble your team like Avengers unite, right? Like you've got to have Avengers assemble, right? Like you've got to, you got to get your Avengers together. And this is one of the Association cultural things. It's not just going to be staff. You're also going to need to be recruiting volunteers and rank and file members on to your team. Because that's one of the things that's different about our culture. Then you've got to get into that experimental framework and consider how this is all going to affect your culture and engage in that process of intentional culture change in order to get you to the ends that you, that you envisioned when you did that sort of strategic look and how can these technologies contribute to the organizational strategic goals we're already trying to achieve.
Carol: And one of the things that I think people have been advocating for for a long time in the association space, and then the nonprofit space more generally is really, making having staff and boards volunteers make more data driven, driven decisions rather than, Well, the last member who happened to call you and, and, and, and bend your ear relying on those anecdotes and what are, what are some of the key barriers that you see to really effectively using the data that or organizations actually already have?
Elizabeth: Oh man. How much time do you have, especially the TA. This specifically is the topic of one of my earlier white papers on evidence-based decision-making that I wrote with Peter household from Mariner management. Yeah, this is a challenge, right? Speaking of legacy systems this for associations is, is one of the big ones. And we actually talk about this quite a bit in the white paper, because, Consumer businesses would kill to get the data that we have on our members, because we have obviously, again, not with everybody, but for a significant portion of your membership, you have a very long-term relationship with those people where they've been. Doing all sorts of different stuff with you for years. And they've, and, and this is, this is actually born out in some of the, the other studies that we referenced, the white paper that have been done by community brands. But the other thing is our members are more willing to share their data with us. Austin. They are with most consumer brands because they trust us. And they are particularly willing to share their data with us if we're transparent about how we intend to use it. And it's clear that the reason that we're asking for this is in order to provide them with better service, better programs and products, et cetera. so we've, we've got a treasure trove of data. The problem is, one of the, the technology pieces of, of digital transformation. Is data analytics. And as an industry, we've been lagging on that. Some of that is because we have a lot of legacy systems that were built in, in exclusion of each other. And so they don't talk to each other particularly well. And if you can look at the history of association management, Systems and, for, for a while, there was this trend of, we're going to do everything in the AMS and we're going to build everything that is part of the AMS. Anything you could possibly think of, you might want to do with your members is going to be a module. Right. And we pretty quickly all realized that was a terrible idea. So, people went back to more of a, okay, so, we need to. Run conference registration. So we're gonna, we're going to get a best of breed conference registration system, and we need to run professional development. So we're going to get a best of breed learning management system, and we need to manage the content on our website. So we're going to get a best of breed, every content management system there, and, and realizing that it's, it's better to do it that way than to try to have this one mammoth piece of software that handles everything. But the problem is, those things don't always communicate with each other particularly well. So, back to it, we've got this wonderful treasure trove of data, but none of it's talking to each other and we have, have lacked the capacity to figure out how to make that happen. Now we're seeing even, even when Peter and I wrote the evidence-based decision-making white paper a couple of years ago, we're seeing more of a movement towards. Speaking of a crosswalk type platform, something that's, that's on top of all of those things and they don't have to talk to each other, they all just have to talk to this shared platform, and we're seeing that with everything from, actual business analytics tools to data visualization tools and, and so my, My encouragement to associations would be to keep going on that route, to keep, keep looking at those business information and business analytics tools, get educated about them, just dive in and pick one and find somebody on it. Staff, who's interested in learning about it, and just like, just start going and see what you can do and what you can learn and what insights you can gather. So that's that piece of it. The other piece of it is the questions, right? Because it's all just a big pile of data. If you don't know what it is that you're trying to find out. And so in the midst of finding yourself good data, visualization to want a good business information tool and finding somebody on your staff. Who's interested in learning how to use them and, getting them some training and setting them loose and all that. But like all that stuff is good. Right. You also want to think about what are the questions that we are trying to answer about our members and other audiences and what data do we need. In order to answer those questions. And so one of the things that Peter and I very much argue for in the data-driven decision-making white paper is spend more time on the front end asking better questions, because then back to that whole thing of our members being willing to give us data. If we know why. We want it. You'll have a better question that you're asking. So you'll be asking for more targeted data with a clear, this is why we need it, which means people will be more willing to give it to you. Which means you'll be able to have a better answer to the question because you'll be operating from a fuller picture of what's going on.
Carol: Well, and that all goes back to, strategy from the beginning of thinking about, where, where, where are you right now doing that assessment. And, and maybe you need to go back and do your homework and, and, and do more digitizing, maybe work on your data, silos, those kinds of things. Before you can really shift into transformation. But, really having that assessment of where you are and then working together to figure out what's the vision for where we want to end up.
So I'd like to shift gears a little bit at this point. And I always like to ask, I have a box of random ice - they're not random because they wrote them all, but I randomly picked them out of the box of icebreaker questions and always like to end the podcast with one of those. So, I was about to ask you, if you could write a book, what would it be about? But you told me you didn't want to write a book. So I won't ask you that one. So who in your life inspires you to be better?
Elizabeth: Ooh, that's a good one. So many people and now I'm going to have to pick one. This is good. This is going to be trite, but that's okay. It's, it's probably my spouse. So He, he historically has believed in me way more than I believed in myself. The perfect, the perfect story of that being, when I, when I was first thinking about starting the business, I, at the time I wasn't thinking about starting spark consulting, I was thinking about it was time to move on to a different association job. Yeah. It's not there. Yeah. I got my resume to go on talking to people and meeting with recruiters and submitting resumes and whatnot. And, as I'm starting to tell people in my network, Hey I think it's time for me to move on. The almost immediate response from everyone was, so you're gonna start your own consulting business. Right. And I was like, Oh no, I was going to go work at another association. And so finally I was meeting a friend of mine who is a recruiter for lunch. And I said, Hey, We're going to move on and she's like, okay, so you're gonna start your own consulting business. Right. And I'm like, you're like the 10th person who's asked me that. Could you please tell me what I'm seeing or what you're seeing about this whole situation that I am missing. And she did, she did. She laid out some really great advice for me and everything. And I was like, Hmm. Okay. I really thought about this a little more seriously when I came home that night. And we had friends over for dinner and, we had a nice dinner and we're cleaning up whatever, and it's like time to go to bed, you know? So as we're getting to bed, I say to him, I'm like yeah, I had lunch with my friends this afternoon. And I'm thinking that maybe I want to start my own business and he looks at me and he's like, I think you'd be great at that. You should totally do that. And it turns off the light and I'm like, this man believes in me. Right. If he, if he believes in me to this level, I need to believe in myself to this level. And that, that level of confidence in me and confidence that I'm going to make the right decision and do the right thing, inspires me to make sure that I do
Carol: Awesome. Well, what's, what's coming up for you next. What are you excited about in your work?
Elizabeth: Getting this white paper launched. So yes, for the, for the, the listeners of the pod it is going to be coming out right around June 1st. So we're, we're very excited about that. And then Carol, as you mentioned, it's freely available you don't even end up on a mailing list. I mean, you can just have it, like, I don't, I don't collect your data or anything like that. You can, you can just have it. So definitely getting, getting that launched and also watching the association industry begin sort of poking our heads out post pandemic. This is no great secret, but for a lot of small consultants 2020 was a pretty rough year because associations very much went into hunker down and try not to panic mode. So for a lot of us. 2020 was a little challenging. Totally understandable. Right, when an association doesn't know what's going to be happening and they may even be having lay off staff, they're not looking to be hiring outside help. But I'm, I'm watching again, more associations start poking their heads out, Looker, looking around and start thinking about, okay, we're, we're moving into whatever the post pandemic is going to look like. And now thinking about some of this stuff that we just, for a year, like, We just we're in survival mode here, man. We can't think about any of these things. So yeah, I'm just, I'm looking forward to, to all of that. And seeing where we go as an industry because and this is, this is something we talk about in one of the other case studies in the white paper associations had to make a lot of changes, really fast. And that we, some of them were good choices and good changes, and some of them were less so, right. Like we did not have the luxury of sitting around and assessing everything and, like we had to move right now. And so I'm also really interested to see. See kind of, what's going to stick and what's not going to stick. I'm very curious about that. Yeah, so I'm, I'm eager to see how that all plays out too.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's going to be, I think that's what a lot of people are thinking about right now. And I'm asking the question of kind of, well, we, we, we suddenly, well, one, we suddenly enacted changes that perhaps a few people had been talking about for years and we'd been ignoring them and then overnight we had to do them But then, what do we want to keep? What helps us in terms of maybe being more efficient including more people. But then where is it really important? basically like working remotely or, and doing virtual events. No, where is it really important for people to be in the room together? And, my one wish if, if, if this can happen, it will be just amazing that people start being much more intentional about why are we getting all these people on a train, plane, automobile to come together and be together? And then the answer should not be to sit and listen to a lecture that they could have watched at home since that's what we've done for the past year. That could be the change that comes out of this for organizing patients and their, their convenience and meanings. I would be very excited.
Elizabeth: Yep. Three things related to that. Right? Number one, the whole thing of, anytime you're having a meeting, look around the table, think about how much each of those people is paid per hour and how long you got from there. And that is the actual cost of that meeting. Right. And we don't think about that enough, this flight-shaming becoming a thing. Right. We have to think about the climate impact of our travel, nowadays, I mean, that's, that's very much, much a thing. And there's the issue of being able to include more voices.
Carol: Yeah. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great to have you on, and we'll definitely put links into the book that you mentioned, and to the white paper when it comes out and more generally to the rest of them so that people can have access to all that wonderful, all those wonderful resources that you've been producing over the years. But thank you so much for coming
Elizabeth: on. Yeah. Thank you for having me and, and, I made these for you also. Please take them.
Elizabeth: Thanks Carol.
Carol: Thank you.
I appreciate Elizabeth’s focus on organizational culture change if an organization is going to truly transform digitally. It is not just about shifting internal processes from analog to digital – it is really thinking differently about how you are using technology to support your mission – and that could have much broader implications than just improving internal processes. Any one who has worked on a technology project knows how easy it is to get caught up in worrying about making the right decision about what system to choose to achieve your goals – whether it is what fundraising software, what customer management system or what team collaboration tool you are going to use – and then what vendor will be the right one to properly service the system. But even if you make the ‘perfect’ decision if you do not bring folks along with you and consider the changes from their perspective, you may find that they do not see the change as the wonderful innovation or improvement that you do. Have you given thought and time to think about how a group will adapt to the new system? What it will mean in terms of their day to day? Can you find a few champions who will lead the way and demonstrate its value to those who are reluctant to jump in? The objects are a lot less shiny when folks won’t use them and they do not end up solving the problem you thought they would – not because the tech can’t do it -but because it is too much hassle for your teammates to take the time to learn the tech and it not an urgent need for them. This past year demonstrated just how quickly people can learn new technology such as Zoom when it is a burning need. So it is not really about whether people can – it is really rather – is it important for them to do so? If not – how can you help them see the importance?
Thank you for listening to this episode. It’s an honor for you to spend this time with me. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for their support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed this episode, it would be great if you would share it with a colleague or friend or on social media – please tag us if you do! We really appreciate you helping us get the word out.
In episode 22 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Michelle Nusum-Smith discussed include:
Michelle Nusum-Smith is owner and principal consultant at The Word Woman LLC. A licensed nonprofit consultant, coach and trainer, Michelle helps nonprofits, government agencies, and individuals achieve their goals. With over 20 years of nonprofit experience, she has expertise in all areas of nonprofit development and sustainability. Michelle has extensive speaker and facilitator experience. She is licensed to offer consulting services for the Maryland Nonprofit’s Standards for Excellence® program and has the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to work with nonprofits across the country. A graduate of the Honors Program at Coppin State University where she earned a BS in Management Science with a minor in Marketing, Michelle is a member of the Grants Professional Association and an Associate Consultant at Maryland Nonprofits.
Important Links: Interview Transcript:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Michelle. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Michelle Nusum-Smith: Thank you, Carol. Thank you for this opportunity to speak.
Carol: I'm sure we're going to have a great conversation and people are going to learn a lot through all the expertise you bring to nonprofits, but I like to start with what really drew you to the work that you do? What motivates you? What would you describe as your why?
Michelle: Interesting question. I would certainly say my mom is definitely, I think the seed planter. So I was a do gooder before I knew what do you put or meant? We were always involved in some kind of community outreach, giving engagement, volunteering something. And so, my first job was in retail. Like most of us. Well, my first professional job was in health and human services, and I just loved the idea of helping people and giving back. But if I wasn't doing what I'm doing now, I would have been a teacher. I'm a bit of a nerd and I love using tools and techniques and resources. And so I echo spending most of my professional career in the sector and learning that most of us are very passionate. But we don't necessarily realize that nonprofits are businesses like for-profit businesses. They are best practices. And so people would ask me for help and assistance. So I eventually went from being an unofficial consultant to thinking one day, maybe I should officially do this. And so Almost 11 years ago now I started Word Woman LLC.
Carol: Well, that's awesome. And congratulations on your longevity because a lot of folks think, oh yeah, let me go out and do this, but not everybody makes it and makes it for eleven years. so congratulations on that. I appreciate what you said about your mom. My brother has special needs. He's autistic and profoundly deaf. And my mom was always his advocate. And then through the work, being his advocate, she became an advocate more broadly in the disability community. And it really was an inspiration for the things that he was not always thinking about. Well, certainly you want to make sure that all of your own folks, your family is taken care of, but then, what's the broader implication of all the folks who need the same help and what skills can you bring to help them take those same steps. So, appreciate that, that beginning. And what are the areas? I know you work in a lot of different areas, but one of the areas you focus on is helping organizations with pursuing grants. And it seems to be that oftentimes. This is the first thing that people think about when they get into the nonprofit sector they're passionate about, an area they want to help people. They want to create some change or some good in the world and they come out with grants, we have to go after grants. What would you say is the most common misconception that people have about pursuing grants?
Michelle: Well, it's interesting the way that you tee that up, because that's exactly it people, I think I've actually had to talk people out of starting a nonprofit simply because they narrowly think about the grants and the fact that, hey, you have to be a nonprofit to get one. So I would say that the biggest misconception is that just because you're doing good people won't want it. Like funders are going to want to give you a grant. So you don't have to think it through. You don't have to actually have a plan. Just tell them that you have a 501-C, three status, and they'll give you a grant.
Carol: Yeah. And I love the comment that you made about actually talking people out of starting a nonprofit. Tell me more about that motivation? What caused that conversation?
Michelle: Sure. I tell people all the time I am the nonprofit consultant that will talk you out of doing something you were willing to pay me to do. And that's because I'm very passionate about the nonprofit sector. And I know how critically important it is to protect it because with for-profit businesses, if a business does something wrong, it's the public that kind of singularly looks at that business and says that business is bad. But in our sector, if a nonprofit ends up on the front of the newspaper for the wrong reasons, it's not just that nonprofit, it's the entire sector, that's bad and corrupt or what-have-you. And so I really like to talk through with people when they approach me about helping them with starting a nonprofit, why do you want to do it? Let's explore the reason, let's explore some different fits, right? Let's explore if there were some alternatives. So a great example would be just last week. I talked to a group and they wanted to start a nonprofit simply because they wanted to get grants. And I explained to them that what they wanted to do, they could easily start a fund at the community foundation or get a fiscal sponsor or a nonprofit partner. And after a bit of back and forth, because they had made up their mind that they wanted to start this nonprofit, I put them in contact with some folks and they came back and circled back to me and said, you know what, Michelle, you were absolutely right. We're getting a fiscal sponsor. So. Yeah, other times it's you really should start a for-profit business let's own that M.O. and move forward.
Carol: Right. And there are different options now within the for-profit sector of being a B Corp or other kinds of, kind of for benefit, corporations that where, where the organization is not necessarily putting. only putting profit as the bottom line, but looking at a triple bottom line, if you will, but still being created as a for-profit entity. You talked about a couple of different things that folks may or may not be familiar with. One of them was a fiscal sponsor. Can you explain a little bit more about what that is and what the benefits are for someone getting started with a fiscal sponsor?
Michelle: Absolutely. So whether even if you start a nonprofit, so one of the things I explain to people is that just because you have a nonprofit doesn't mean that you have tax exempt status or you're eligible to receive charitable donations, that's getting the 501c3 status from the IRS though, when you start a nonprofit or you have some kind of informal program or activity that you want to be able to secure community support. That may come in the form of France that may come in the form of donations. A great strategy for that is through fiscal sponsorship. And what a fiscal sponsor is, is a nonprofit organization that has the 501c3 status from the IRS, but also has the capacity and willingness to bring your activity under their umbrella. And so the program, the nonprofit gets the benefit of 501c3 status. Without having the responsibilities. So all of the funding goes through the fiscal sponsor who helps to sort of manage those resources will be kept for the program or the nonprofit that doesn't have that 501c3 status. So it positions you to be able to still do your charitable work, to still get community support, but to do it with the support of an entity that is positioned and has the capacity and resources to. To properly manage that support.
Carol: Yeah. And oftentimes that capacity that could be difficult for organizations or when they're not, when they're fairly organizations where then when their program, when they're a person with an idea, is, managing the money, managing the accounting. If you end up with any staff, people, or contractors managing all of that, all of the kind of operational it, all of that kind of thing that, the, one of the things that I see is so many people have great ideas, but then every time you create a new organization, you also have to have some way of, accessing that, all of that infrastructure and, most times most people go into the sector or if they want to start an organization, their motivation is not around creating those operational, that operational infrastructure it's about helping people. Right. and so, yeah, so the fiscal sponsor can kind of. Take on some of that and provide some of that. So that the person with the idea who wants to create the program or who has created a program and wants to build it can really focus on that rather than. more of the administrative side or plug into already a system of administration that, that can, can support them. And then the other thing you talked about was, community foundation a little bit more about what they are and how they can contribute to someone who wants to get started.
Michelle: Oh, yes. So everyone who is listening, if your nonprofit is looking for support or financial support or capacity support, third, we go and have a conversation with your community foundation representative. The community foundation, unlike a family foundation or even a corporate foundation where they may have one singular purpose or focus area, the community foundation, a model, a Fords, nonprofits, the opportunity to make, to potentially tap into multiple sources more though at the same time. So the foundation has its own funding that it distributes. But there are also funds that individuals, corporations, community groups may establish that had their own purpose, their own criteria. So it could be grants, it could be scholarships, it could be seed money for a host of different causes. And so, one of the problems that we often have with accessing those resources is. The failure to have the conversation. And so we immediately just want to look for the current opportunity, submit the grant requests and cross our fingers and hope that we get funded. But if we have a conversation prior to you and we explore, well, where are the opportunities? I have a friend who is the president of the community foundation, and then. She was sharing with a group that was presenting, at the foundation for it. And she said that, we have people who have these funds who have an interest in supporting various causes. And we don't always know the nonprofits that fit that criteria. And so it's important for us to have these conversations, to explore with the different organizations, what their missions are, how they carry them out. So that the staff, the community foundation can figure out, well, how do we connect the individual who has the resources and wants to give it the organization that has the need and is trying to figure out how to cover it.
Carol: So almost like a matchmaking process, if you will. Absolutely. And when you talked about your, the kind of main misconception that people have is, I've got a great idea. I want to help people. I'll just go, I'll just fill out some forms and foundations are magically going to give me money. And you said that the biggest thing was, not having a plan. Can you just, can you say more, a little bit more about what you mean by that and what are the kinds of questions that people should be thinking through and kind of making decisions about to create that plan?
Michelle: So doing the homework. So what is homework? Homework is having a clear understanding of your mission and your vision and your strategy is developing programs based on those strategies that include a clear plan. Who, what, where, why, how and a budget to match it. So a lot of times organizations will identify an opportunity and then try to develop a program or project around the opportunity. Best case scenario is that you've already determined what you want to do. how much it costs, you have a timeline, and then you're looking for the opportunity that aligns with that plan. So that when you, when he gives it to you, the paperwork you begin to fill out the application, it's less of a, does this fit? Will they be interested? And more of, we know that this is a fit and we're just plugging in the information we've already developed. The other thing of course would be. how do we ensure that this is a good fit? And one of the ways that we do that is that we reach out to the funder in advance. Doesn't always happen, but sometimes the stars align and you can actually have a conversation with a foundation representative, send a quick email, potentially even have a meeting with them so that they can have a conversation and understand what it is you're planning to do. Ensure that, give you some assurance that it does align with what the foundation is interested in supporting. And that way, when your grant application arrives, it's not a surprise. They're expecting it. And, and having them that pre-work particularly the conversation positions us as non-profits to have an ally on the inside because when the decision-making starts. And nobody's sitting around the table, knows anything about your organization. They can look to what I call the gatekeeper, that program, officer, whomever, who could say, Oh, yes, I know about that organization. I can answer some of those questions you might have.
Carol: Yeah. So that first step of really ensuring fit, that, that you've done your homework and I would guess, and I'm not a fundraiser, but I would guess, just the basics of have you read what the foundation covers funds. Is what is the work that you're doing within their purview? Is it something, within one of their, one of their programs, cause most, most foundations and, and you said it's different than community foundations, which can have a wide variety of, of, areas that they're interested in, depending on all the different donors that might have funds with them, generally, Family foundations, corporate foundations, large and small typically have made some decisions around their own strategy around what they are interested in and what they're pursuing. So that first check of, well, let's read to make sure that we fit in some way. And then if we think we do reach out and say, well, I'm thinking, and so would it be something like this of, you write an email, this is kind of a para paragraph, like this kind of what we're, what we're aiming to do is this, within what you guys are interested in, in funding,
Michelle: That it's funny because I'm always reminded of, I was doing some grant work for an organization and I found this family foundation doing some research. I sent an email and it basically was like, you described a paragraph that introduced them to the organization. This is our mission. This is who he served. This is the work that we carry out. We will love to explore, Learning more about your foundation and where we might fit the president of the foundation. Now, of course, it's a small family foundation. So when I say presence, there's a small, but mighty group, email me back. Actually she called and left the voicemail and she said, we've never heard of this organization, but we're very intrigued that email that took me a couple of minutes to write resulted in a face-to-face meeting. An invite to apply for funding at the maximum amount that the foundation funds it. And that organization was funded twice, simply because I found the foundation and sent an email. So it does work.
Carol: And it can save you a lot of time if the answer is no, absolutely right, because it takes a lot of work to write a grant. Yes, sir. And if you don't even meet the first criteria and you get, you get pushed to the side in the first cut. That was a lot of work for nothing.
Michelle: I tell folks all. So you, you keep, you were saying, read, read, read, and I can't emphasize that enough. Read the bill, the foundation's website, read the request for proposal years ago, I was a volunteer to do grant reviewing for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I did that for three years and these were 50 page documents. Grant applications for requests between half a million and a quarter million dollars. I can tell you that some of the applications were denied simply because it was very clear that the applicants have not read the request for proposal. They didn't submit the information that was appropriate. So we had to score them poorly. So you gotta read, read, read, and then follow the guidance.
Carol: So, what are some things that help people do a better job of pursuing grants?
Michelle: Well, like I said, definitely don't want that homework. I would say really making sure that you read and re-read your proposal, your material before you submit it, make sure that your budget. Aligns with your narrative. I shouldn't say things in your budget that weren't mentioned in your narrative and vice versa. And then I think the other way to be successful with brands is to make sure that you deliver on your promises. So don't just get the money and then, go off celebrating, take it seriously and then deliver so that the funder will want to support you again.
Carol: Yeah, a couple of things you said there. I think oftentimes they may not think of the connections between the budget and the narrative, or, think of it. Oh, that's that last thing that we have to fill out, but really a budget in, in a way is like it's a plan in numbers, it's a plan and money and, so it really should connect back and it should be clear for the funder, how you're planning to spend their money because obviously, that's a key concern for them.
Michelle: There you go. And the budget should be real. I have had times where I've gone to meet with folks and I asked them for their budget. They slide it across the table and I slide it right back because I get to hell. It's just a bunch of numbers that you've made up. So. Actually be the homework and research. You shouldn't have to guess on certain things that you could just Google to find out. What is the, what is the cost of that item? and so it gives you, like you said, you get this mirrored version of the project in numbers that mirrors the narrative and it positions you so that you can actually deliver on what you propose because. If your budget doesn't align, then you're put in a position where you may run out of money, which you've told the funder, this is all the money that we need. So it's very important to make sure that the budget is based on doing your research and based on actual need and that it mirrors your plan.
Carol: Yeah, it seems like, another thing that I've experienced more from being on the program side of, here, all of the million things that we promised to the funder that we were going to do, and it's like, well, it's just me and this other person. And we only have so much time in the day and I don't know how we're going to deliver it all.
Michelle: Yes, yes, yes. Please do not over promise. First of all, if it's not feasible, it doesn't make sense. Years ago I was doing a, I was working with an organization and this was pre pandemic, but we were still by as Dean because they were in another country and they were going to be doing this maternal health project where they were responding to a request for proposal. So the project idea was already set and they were supposed to work with pregnant women and follow them through their child's third birthday. And I asked, there were two folks that I was meeting with, only two people who staff this organization. And I asked the simple question, how many pregnant women are you going to serve? I kid you not, The executive director said a thousand, and that was my face because I was thinking, first of all, where are you going to find a thousand pregnant women? Number one, but number two, how are you going to possibly follow them? Plus their children for three years? And so I think that what they were thinking was we need to give this big number. So it sounds like we're making a huge impact into that. I would say years ago, it was all about the numbers, the outputs, which is a grant term. So you're counting people, you're counting that you're counting, beads. Right? So that's how we measure success. The bigger, the number, the greater the success. But now we talk about impact, which is more about the outcome, the result of the work that you did. So we, instead of touching people. So it's great that you could say, well, we, we touched a thousand people, but did you actually affect change with them if you just simply touch them? Not really, but if you could actually work with a hundred and move them from where they are to a better position, a better situation. Then that's more impactful. That's more significant than simply just touching a thousand.
Carol: Yeah. So really looking at, and that goes from the request for proposal, the fact that they wanted those pregnant women to be followed through for three years, that's a significant amount of time. and yeah, to think about what's feasible in terms of your staffing and, and how many people you can reach and how many people will you be able to continue to work with over time. Yeah. What would you say? I think there are folks who are starting out, they have some misconceptions. I also find that sometimes board members can really have misconceptions about, grants and, and be very focused on grants. What would you say are, I mean, there are obviously a lot of upsides to getting grants, but are there any kind of hidden costs that you would, you would, talk about that to just caution people that they need to kind of consider those things as well when they're pursuing grants.
Michelle: So you touched on one of the things earlier where you said there's a lot of time and energy invested in just preparing the grant proposal. And, and if you have paid staff, then that means that's money or investing. So that may not result in a grant. And when it comes to getting the grant, there's a cost per se, related to that as well, because there's the cost of managing, there's costs related to investment of time for reporting for evaluations. So it's not just give us the money and, and, and we'll just go off with you, our mission, you, you touched with something else too, which is, this whole idea of the board and let's get grants, let's get grants. I actually have a client right now who, I just, before we got on our call, she, I was receiving emails where the board members found grant opportunities, which is great because that means that they were engaged. But we do want to recognize that grants cannot, should not and won't be your only source of funding. Grants have a lot of limitations. They don't pay for everything they're time bound. And so it's very important that as part of from the board level, part of our strategic planning that we're thinking about all of the available funding sources, And then we're thinking about how do we tap into all of them to ensure that we had adequate resources, whether that's individual donations, corporate support in the form of donations or sponsorships membership dues, do we pay half to like programs where folks may pay for services or as fees related to being involved with our organization, we need to look at all of the available funding sources. And then have a strategy so that grants are part of the strategy, but not be the strategy.
Carol: Yeah. And I wanted to, to ask you that, obviously grants are just one way to, to raise funds. And so you talked about those different types of possible revenue streams. What are some of the key aspects that organizations need to consider when they're thinking about putting together a fundraising plan?
Michelle: I would say certainly the fundraising plan should be driven by our strategic plan. So we're, we're planning to raise the money to support our, our program plans, our operating costs. Thirdly, there are costs that, as I said, are not going to be covered by restricted sources of funding, such as grants, keeping the lights on. So you may have a grant where the fundable say, we'll pay for the person who's presenting. We'll pay for the materials. We'll pay for food, but we're not paying the electricity, the electricity bill. And so we need to incorporate as part of that fundraising plan forces, better unrestricted. So individual gifts, you have some individuals I should say, could be central to our fundraising plan. And it should incorporate the various sources of revenue and an action plan or strategy for how we're going to carry it out. And that again, should be top down. So the board should be driving this effort, even when you have staff that may be implementing your plan.
Carol: So you talked about a couple terms that some people probably are already familiar with, but others may not be restricted and unrestricted funds. Can you say a little bit more about what that means?
Michelle: Sure. So the way I like to describe the differences for those of us who go to church and you make your tithes and offerings, most of us don't ask any questions about where that money's going. We just trust that it's going to be used for good. We go about our business. So as individuals, we're making contributions to our church without any strings attached or expectations, other than seeing the manifestation of, of the good, right. Whereas if you receive a grant or you receive a large gift from an individual donor, it may come with some expectations, some straights. So it may be restricted regarding the budget. So when we submit a grant proposal, we include a budget. The funder expects for you to spend the money as you budgeted it, as opposed to, if somebody just writes a check, there are no restrictions. You can use the funds or the benefit of the organization based on what's needed. There are restrictions that are related to the time and use. So, for example, you may receive less than you receive a grant for $50,000. And because of the funders approach, you get one check upfront of $50,000. So you're looking at your bank statement and it says there's $50,000 in there, but that $50,000 is tied to what 12 year I'm sorry, 12 month grant periods. So, although it's sitting in the bank, it's supposed to be spent according to the budget over that 12 month period. So restricted means there's some guidance around how you use it. Unrestricted means thank you, we'll pull together our strategy and then determine how to spend it.
Carol: Thank you. Thank you. So, on each episode I play a game at the end asking one, random icebreaker question. And so I have one here, what's something you believed earlier in your career that you think differently about now?
Michelle: Ooh, that's an interesting one. So something that I thought early in my career. That I think differently. This is a funny answer, but it's the one that popped in my head. So that's the one I'll share. So when I was younger, I looked young and I thought that people wouldn't take me seriously until I was old. And so I had this crazy idea that once I turned 40, that miraculously people will begin to take this seriously, but now I realize that people have always taken me seriously. Maybe not as seriously as I had bought or had hoped, or just, just didn't realize it. And age doesn't need to be a predictor of your credibility or your impact. And so I'm a believer that anybody and everybody, no matter your age can have a huge impact.
Carol: Awesome. I love that. Thank you. And so what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing these days.
Michelle: So I'm doing lots of different things, but I'm a Gemini. So I've always had my hands in a lot of different things. But one thing that I will mention that's related to our discussion is I have been wanting to do a grant writing boot camp. I've done them in the past. The one that is much more technical and much more, hands on and practical in application and I'm going to be I'm. So it's still in the works, but I will be doing that over the summer. It's going to be a six week virtual, I believe, virtual program. and so I'm looking forward to that and looking forward to you, Being who, who, who participates and, and the work that they do because of it.
Carol: So. Awesome. Well, we will put links in the show notes to your website so people can check it out and see when that program, when, when you launch it, which I'm sure will be super useful for many people because, yeah, sometimes it's, it's oftentimes that nitty gritty, that, that can get in people's way. When they're, when they're trying to, trying to, Put together, those, those grants, those proposals hopefully avoid all the things that we just talked about, but learn even more. I'm sure with you so, well, thank you so much. It's been great talking to you today.
Michelle: Thank you, Carol. I appreciate this opportunity.
In episode 21 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Andy Robinson discussed include:
Andy Robinson provides training and consulting for nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies. Over the past 25 years, Andy has worked with clients in 47 US states and Canada. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, he has designed and facilitated 70 online meetings, webinars, and remote workshops covering a variety of topics, including fundraising, board development, marketing, leadership development, facilitation, and train-the-trainer programs. Andy is the author of six books, including Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money, www.trainyourboard.com. His latest is What Every Board Member Needs to Know, Do, and Avoid. He lives in Plainfield, Vermont.
Carol Hamilton: Well welcome, Andy. Great to have you on the podcast.
Andy Robinson: Thank you for inviting me, Carol. It's good to be here with you.
Carol: So just to start out, I like asking the question of all my guests of what drew you to the work that you do, what, what motivates you and how would you describe your why?
Andy: So you're looking for my origin story in this work.
Carol: Well, I mean, it could be a more recent version of that, cause I'm sure it's evolved over the years.
Andy: All right. Well, for those of you who are listening, but not watching, I'm an old guy with a gray beard. And my, my origin story goes back to 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president and I was fresh out of college and I didn't know who I wanted to be when I grew up or what I wanted to do. And I was a little stunned. I was like, what, what happened here? What do I do? And so I was casting around for something to do, and I opened the newspaper and. I looked in the classifieds and there was a job title called activist, and I thought, huh, that's interesting. What does that mean? What do those people do? And I applied for this job and I was hired and it turned out what I was doing was door to door canvassing. So I was one of those nice young people who came to your door and knocked on your door and told you about an organization. I had a conversation, asked you to give money. And that was my entry point into the world of nonprofits. And I think also the worlds of social change, social justice and community organizing. So what. Moves me now is what moved me then, which is the desire to create a positive change in the world and looking for tangible ways to do it. And for the last 25 years, I've run my own consulting practice as a trainer and consultant and facilitator. And I work with groups on planning and fundraising and facilitating meetings and building leadership and some of the stuff that you also do, Carol.
Carol: Yeah. It's interesting that you talk about that period right after college. It took me a little bit longer, but my first job that I got was working for a company that helped people get on talk shows. And so I found that I was actually rather good at writing the publicity and PR for folks and decided that I wanted to apply that skill to causes that I believed in. So that's what prompted my shift into the nonprofit sector.
Andy: This is sort of hilarious, cause you've recruited me to be on the talk show today.
Carol: Yeah, I've come full circle, I guess. So you said you, you've been in business for a long time and before that obviously had a long career in the sector and well, all the entire career in the sector, but in, in different roles. And you've said recently that you're shifting now into semi-retirement. And intentionally stepping back, taking shorter gigs. What's, what's your intention in doing that?
Andy: Well, there's three or four things. It's, it's a, it's a lovely question. The first thing is my own. Sustainability energy. One of the pleasures of working for yourself is that you work for yourself, but one of the pleasures of working for yourself is that you often never stop working. So I'm one of those people. Who's often at my desk at 10 o'clock at night, responding to emails that I didn't get to during the day. And I'm, I've reached the age where it's time for me to dial back my work so I can have more fun though. That's one answer to your question. The second answer to your question, and this slides us into the topic of succession planning. I have been helping and supporting other people enter this work for a number of years as facilitators and trainers and consultants. And I helped to lead a university program on this and then. I'm an informal coach to a lot of people who are entering into supporting nonprofits and, and, and the work that meets. So I feel like if I step back, there's more room for others to step up and jobs than I am not accepting. And I am referring those out to other people or jobs that I don't get any more. Cause it's okay. I have enough, I've had enough work. I don't need to do it much longer, but I'm also supporting and training and helping other people who want to enter this space. And that feels good to me. So this is my personal succession plan and I can't say I wrote it down, but it's something I've thought about for years and they've been implementing it step by step. And the latest step is for me to work less and be more assertive about pushing jobs out to other people, especially folks who are new to consulting. I'm sending a lot more work to BIPOC consultants, black indigenous people of color, as a way of supporting social justice and equity. So that's my current thinking and I'm spending more time having fun. I'm, I'm hiking out in the woods and I'm cooking good food and I'm spending time with my spouse whom I adore. And I still have enough work to keep things going. And that seems like a good balance right now.
Carol: Yeah. And a couple of things that you talked about you've worked with other leaders on succession planning. What do you think other nonprofit leaders could, could learn from your approach and how you've been doing it? It seems like you've been very intentional in how you're approaching it, which. I don't think it's particularly actually very well supported in our culture.
Andy: Well said. Well, I wanna, I wanna frame this two ways. One of the things I've done with organizations over many years is strategic planning, which is also something you've done a lot of. And one of them, I have a couple of favorites. Planning questions. One of the things I ask people is how long will it take to win? And they're like, what? And I say, how long will it take for you to change the world so effectively that the workflow of your organization is no longer necessary? Like, what's your exit strategy right now? We should acknowledge many organizations are perpetual organizations, hospitals, universities, some of these institutions should be around forever. I totally get that. A lot of groups are trying to solve a problem and go out of business. So my first question is how long will it take for you to win? And we spend some time chewing through because it might be a generation or two generations or three generations, right? Depending on the organization. Then I say, are you going to be here for the victory party? And of course, everybody laughed and said, no, I'm not going to be around that long. And then I say to them, if you are not actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition. So, this is not this optional thing. If you don't have a succession plan, excuse me. If you're not building leadership, as you're building your organization and doing your work and changing the world you're failing. So that's a little aha for people. And I wanted to apply that same thinking to myself, you know? So there's an old thing that people might remember if they were Scouts or they learned how to backpack, you're supposed to leave the campsite in better shape than you found it. Like if you show up at the campsite and there's trash, pick up the trash, when you, when you check out, take the trash with you, don't let somebody else deal with the trash. And so literally I am trying to leave the campsite. In better shape than I found it. And I feel like the way I can do that is by handing off and supporting, and training and building other people who are coming in behind me. And I will tell you, I have, I don't know the number there's at least 50 and probably more like a hundred different peers that I interact with over the course of a year, in terms of sharing jobs, trading notes, doing referrals. Picking each other's brains. I mean, I have an amazing network and that's what sustained me for all the years. I've been self-employed as all these lovely peers who are generous to me and I aspire to be generous to them. So if I can help people do that for themselves. And built that peer network and what a gift. Right. That's beautiful. So that's my intention here and I will do it imperfectly, cause we all do everything imperfectly, but so far so good.
Carol: So what would you think? What, what, what are some ways in which inside an organization, a leader can, can start to groom that next generation.
Andy: Yeah, well, once upon a time I mean, I've done webinars on this topic and, I could probably rattle off 10 steps. I don't know that that's a lot, but I'll throw you two or three, which is one thing you should do is look at your task list and try to hand off, I don't know, one task a week, two tasks a week. And I don't mean, pardon me, Carol. I don't mean the menial stuff. I mean, substantive stuff. I mean, if you're doing all the data entry and you hand that off to somebody else. Sure. That's lovely, but that's not building their skillset. So that's one thing they could do is actually look at what you do and say, is there stuff that I can delegate? Reasonably appropriately without burdening other people, but also takes me out of the center of things. That's one idea, second idea. And this speaks to the facilitation work that you and I both do is when I'm building an agenda and I'm figuring out who's going to lead. What section of the agenda. I want multiple people leading different parts of the agenda because the ability to. To run a meeting, to facilitate a conversation is a leadership skill. So I am currently chairing a board and I had a board meeting last night. So this is top of mind. And as I was building the board agenda, I had about, I think, five different people leading different parts of the meeting. And so that's a second idea if you're actually bringing groups together, share the power within the group so that you have that agenda where people are. Taking turns, facilitating and leading and, and building the conversation. The third one is one that I've touched on already, which is don't be a perfectionist. And there's the classic thing you see is that you have a leader who wants it done their way, and often somebody else has a different way of doing it. That is different, but could be just as effective or differently, effective or weaker in some ways, but stronger in ways that your way isn't. And so part of it is accepting the fact that other people do things they think about. Problems or challenges or opportunities differently. They approach them differently. That's something that should be embraced by leaders, as opposed to we have one way we do things here. So those are some ideas. I mean, I kicked this back to you. I know you think about this. When you're advising leaders on succession and distributing power, what tips do you offer?
Carol: Well, it's interesting that you talked about delegation because I think people think about that. That's an obvious one, but yet folks struggle with it for so much. And I think it goes to the last point that you've talked about. And I've been in situations where I've dealt with things delegated to me. And the leader has told me explicitly that, that, no, you, however you approach it is great until I stumbled upon the way that they actually wanted me to do it. Yes. And I think it's not even conscious on their part. Right. It's not their, their conscious intention was to hand this off and let me run with it. And then, I approach it differently and, and it was like, Ooh, well, wait a second. Not so much. And I think you can then ideally you then have a conversation to figure out what's the middle ground between the two. I don't know that I always handled it that way. Because I think my perpetual lesson that I've had to learn over and over again is indeed that people do things differently than I would do.
Andy: if you've done any anti-racism training, anti-oppression training, one of the first things they talk about is the difference between intention and impact. Sure. Right. And often we have very good, positive, sacred, Holy high-minded intentions, but we're clueless about the impact we're having on other people. And this is one of those examples. It's like, My intention is to give this job to you. But the impact I'm having is I'm micromanaging you while you're doing it. I'm just doing that. So, I mean, I have a mental way to do this, which is I would have people imagine there's a spectrum. And at one end of the spectrum, I'm pointing to my left are people who are really good at empowering others and supporting others and delegating. That's one of the ends of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum pointing to my right. People's responses, the heck with it. I'm just going to do it myself. It's easier to just do it myself and full disclosure here is I live down at that. Right, and the second end of the spectrum, my default button is, the heck with it. I'm just going to do it myself. It's easier. And what's interesting here is I have spent an entire lifetime trying to move myself down that line to the opposite end of the spectrum. Getting myself out of the way. So, I mean, I don't know if this is today's topic, but I will touch on it. I carry a lot of privilege. I'm an upper middle-class, white, cisgendered, straight male. I have an Ivy League education. I'm able-bodied. I mean, I have all the markers. I have English as my first language. I am, I have all the markers of privilege and I feel like my work for the last several years and maybe the last decade is to shrink my footprint and take up less space. And because that's what that's, what privilege is, is you take up a lot of space that you're not even aware that you're taking up. So, and I'll talk about this in front of groups and, there's a chance to bring this into a training or a facilitation, and there's a moment to have this conversation. I'll have it, but one of the ways that I can delegate perhaps in an we'll use the word unintentional, but as a secondary way is to just take up less space, to speak less to. Shrink my presence in whatever way that looks like, because that creates space for other people to step in and embrace their leadership skills. So I am like the amazing shrinking man, but I still take up huge amounts of space, but I'm mindful of it. And I am checking that whenever I can. And I think that's a succession planning strategy too. If you're a leader, how do you take up less space so that other people can occupy that space? And how do you really underline that and embrace that as a, as a strategy and a tool?
Carol: Yeah. So one of them is just, let's say, you're, you're discussing a topic with a group and trying to figure out different ways that you might approach it brainstorming. And if the leader can take a beat and not be the first person to talk can be huge.
Andy: Yeah. And I’ve facilitated a couple of online things over the last year where I've had leaders say to me, I'm not, I'm going to say very little, I'm going to not speak first. I'm going to step back intentionally. This is not me telling them this is them coming to me and saying, FYI, if you see me being quiet, it's me stepping back. And my response is thank you. And if I, if I feel as a facilitator, I need their voice. I can call on them. And say, Martha, haven't heard from you yet on this, what's your thinking. And I can cue them when needed, but that's, that's a great level of self-awareness and I'm, I'm glad you brought that up.
Carol: Yeah. And there's some tools, I mean, for brainstorming, there's some tools that you can use to help everybody's voice get in the room. By just having people, write things down first, like, the classic sticky notes and, and now in the virtual space on something like mural or jam board and, before anybody says anything, allowing people a few minutes to get their ideas out onto the board and in some cases you can trace, who's had what, but most people, by the time they're on there, they're not paying that much attention to it. And so it gives space for people, all, all the folks who are participating to step in. And, and one other thing that you talked about at that rotating facilitation, which is a simple thing, I was in this past year I've been teaching folks how, how to facilitate effectively online. And I was working with an intact team walking through the program and then they were trying to think about, okay, so how do we actually, the classic challenge with training of how do we actually make this stick? How do we, that was nice, but we did it in your, in your session. How do we actually start implementing this in practice? And so we talked about them using it in internal meetings first so that the stakes are lower. And so when I had my one-on-one with their leader, one of the things we talked about, I was like, well, okay, so what meetings do you typically lead? And he always led their weekly staff meeting.
I was like, well, what if, what if you rotate that. And, the intention there was to make sure that everyone was practicing facilitation. But as you say, facilitation and leading a meeting, thinking about an agenda, how are you guiding the group? How are you guiding the conversation? What questions are you asking about self leadership skills? So just by that, by him stepping back and saying, no, I'm not going to be the default, in a weekly meeting that doesn't need to be me. Is an easy first step to take. Yeah,
Andy: I totally agree. And one of the things I'm noticing about all these zoom meetings is all the boxes are the same size. And if you're fairly skillful, I mean, my experience of Zoom so far is that the alphas who tend to dominate it's a little harder to do it in that environment. And especially if there's some good facilitator helping work the process the alphas are less alpha and. That creates an equity opportunity. So what's one of the things I'm appreciating about all these virtual meetings is I think they do level the playing field a little bit if you handle them properly.
Carol: Right. And again, it all goes back to how you're structuring them. And and, and I think it's interesting to also watch how some people who might not speak up then have access to the chat. And so, they may not be contributing verbally to the meeting, but they're contributing often very coherent and quite eloquent thoughts in the chat. So, there's, it just gives people different ways to interact with the group and contribute. Again, as he said, if you kind of. Position that well, so
Andy: Carol, can I bring some Shakespeare into the car? Sure. In many, many Shakespearian tragedies, there was a fool and the fool is the person who says to the King when the King is being a jerk and maybe he gets whipped or beaten a little bit, for the most part, it is their job to speak truth to power. And I feel like if you're a leader and you're thinking about succession, you need to designate somebody in your organization who will call you out when you're overstepping your boundaries and not be punished for it. So I think, I think every leader needs a full. Where they trust and love, but who will speak truth to them and say, you're overstepping here. Or you're, you're AWOL what's up. Or you really handle that one. You could handle that one differently than you did. And it takes some courage to have somebody who is your designated call you out person, and it doesn't have to be publicly, can be privately like, FYI at that meeting, you missed an opportunity. I want to share with you what I saw that opportunity was. So. Sometimes as the consultant, we fill that role. Sometimes our job is to speak truth, to power and name things that people don't want to talk about because they're difficult. But even if you had somebody like that within your organization who had that role and handled the Def that's a succession tool as well.
Carol: So what I think we've talked about this a little bit, but what are some of the mistakes that you've seen leaders make when, when. When they're thinking about their exit or perhaps not even not even thinking about it and then that broader transition that's, cause it's never just one thing. There's always a ripple effect. Yeah, it goes through the organization.
Andy: There's a guy named Don Tebbe. Who's written a lot about this. And one of his quotes is leading well is leaving well, or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe it's leaving well is leading well, it works either way. So first of all, we have to lift that up as a value. It's okay to leave well, in terms of mistakes. Oh, let us count the ways. I think a classic mistake is hanging onto them, you know? And I am I'm I'm right in the middle of the baby, boom, I'm boomer through and through boomers, we need to step aside and I acknowledge that maybe you haven't saved all the money you need to retire, or maybe you're having too much fun or maybe there's still work to do that you want to do. And that's awesome. And time to step aside, at least figuring out what that looks like for you. So one thing is just hanging on too long and it is, it is baked into the system, but the skills that one needs to start a company, a business, an organization to start anything is a different skill set that is required to build it to maturity. And it's few people that have both of those skill sets. So you and I have both. I dealt with this thing called founder's disease or founder's syndrome or founder itis. Right. And God bless founders, ‘cause we need them. They make stuff happen. They are amazing people, but founders sometimes leave trouble in their wake. So I think one thing we have to do is to be mindful of that as we're doing this, you and I have both worked with boards where there's been board members on the board for 20 or 30 years term limits is a whole nother thing here that we can be thinking about in terms of a succession plan, is that if the staff leadership turns over, you still have the same people on the board with the same set of assumptions and the same story that goes back to 1993, about why we should be doing this. And it's a different world. Would that be a second mistake? And I'll kick this back to you. I can come up with more, but I mean, what have you seen as the biggest challenge to succession? What gets in the way?
Carol: Well, one that was interesting. I was working with a group where it was that classic thing of the board members. originating founder, the founder was still on the board. some of the founding board members were still there. And I think part of the challenge, like, and the person, said that they wanted to step back, said that they were tired and they didn't, they wanted to groom new people and said all the right things. And again, behaved in the absolute opposite way of micromanaging staff and, and, questioning if a board, if the board made a decision then going around the board to undermine it when the, they didn't agree in those kinds of things. And I think what was as part of that challenge, and I think for many people is that for that person, it was so much part of their identities. That they couldn't imagine what they would be without leading that organization.
Andy: I came up in an era. I mean, again, my career started in 1980. I came up in an era where if you were working for nonprofits, especially these, heavily mission-driven nonprofits, the assumption was you were, you would bleed for the cause. And you'd come in early and you'd stay late and it was your life. And one thing I'm loving about working with millennials is they actually want to have a life outside of the office and an identity that's not connected to their jobs. And that's great. So I think the problem is, a generation that came up the way that I came up, which is your identity is your work. And your identity is the causes that you care about. And there's something positive about that. I mean, that's, that's commitment and that's powerful, but it's also destructive. So yeah, you're right. I think we have to have identities that are, at least we can separate from the work we do or the organizations we're involved with. Because I think the classic problem is people won't let go because their identities are tied up in the work.
Carol: Yeah. And then they feel, less than, or they don't, they're not useful or, they have no purpose without, without this work that they're doing. And I mean, I guess for me, I, I saw my dad struggle with that. He was the greatest generation and dedicated every minute. Of his working life to his working life. And just struggled when he retired or, it was in a system where you, you had to retire at a certain age. And because everything about his adult life had been wrapped up in that job. And watching the difference. And my mom was a stay-at-home mom, but she also shaped, like we. He was in the foreign service. So we traveled around the world and every country, she would get a new degree. So she entertained herself by getting degrees, taking care of us. But then like, but she was never as attached to those. I don't think in the same way, it's just, wasn't the same. And so for me, going into the workforce, I always had the, and my, my tagline for the podcast is how, how to be in the nonprofit sector without being a martyr to the cause. Cause I just think that martyr syndrome is just so toxic to our sector. And so I've always tried to think about, well, there's work. And then there, then it's not that there's like work in life. Like your work is part of your life, right? It's not that separate, but how do you kind of. Keep cultivating other communities, other networks and other aspects that you want to develop. I mean, I, I do know a lot of people through my faith community who are retired and I've just, I've seen some amazing transformations of, someone who was a lawyer who specialized in some incredibly arcane aspect of, Law who then after he retired and he struggled to retire, took him like five years from when he started talking about it to when he actually did. But then started taking classes, started taking art classes at the local community college and mean has become quite the, I don't think he was trying to become a great artist, but, but he's become quite accomplished and really enjoys that.
Andy: So exploring different aspects of yourself is as important I think. And, and I will argue that our greatest ex president is Jimmy Carter. He did, a lifetime's worth of work after he left the white house. Right, right. Amazing things, amazing things. And so, yeah, I mean, that's someone who had a third act or a fourth act, or however you want to count it. So, yeah, it's certainly possible to have a life after work. Like maybe you all have that.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I've also worked with yes. And you named it, you named it. So I'll, I'll say it, the baby boomers who would be having conversations with me and I'm, and, just baffled with this baffled look on their face. So I just don't know where the leaders are going to come from. And I'm like, okay. I know when you started being a leader, you were like 15 years younger than me. In your career, but you don't think that I could possibly be in that role, you know?
Andy: So yeah. Yeah, that's right. I am carrying the shame of an entire generation.
Carol: Well, we will, we will require you to do that.
Andy: No problem. It's it's, it's, it's the old thing. It's, it's like men have to talk to men about sexism and misogyny and. White people about racism and boomers have to talk to boomers about letting it go. So here we are.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So since we've been at the end of every episode, I play a game where I ask one ice breaker question from this box of icebreaker questions that I have. So since we've been talking about, second, third acts, fourth acts retirement what's the last thing that you completed on your bucket list and not as soon as of course that you have a bucket list.
Andy: Oh, interesting. Yeah, we just bought an electric vehicle. Oh, wow. Yeah. From a neighbor. So we got a second hand Chevy bolt and I've been driving it for the last month and I'm learning all the bells and the whistles, but it's one of the things. And actually we had a We had a charger installed in our garage some time ago. And then we were going to buy another car. This is more detailed, but anyway I wanted to get an Evie and now I have one. So that was on the bucket list and it has been completed.
Carol: Excellent. Excellent. Well, when, when our cars die and we're waiting well, We're just watching them and they will die soon. That is on our list next to, to try to try to buy an electric vehicle. And probably we'll probably end up with a used one cause we ended up with a used Prius, so that'll be next. So, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you?
Andy: We talking about work or, or fun, or where do you want to get?
Carol: Wherever you want to go
Andy: Well, I will say this next Thursday, which is the 28th, excuse me, the 25th. I am teaming up with my buddy Harvard, McKinnon, who is one of North America's great fundraisers. He's written many books. He's a lot of fun. And he and I are doing a webinar together called raising more money by asking and to answering better questions. And it's all about. Questions that donors think that you really have to anticipate and answer, but also questions you can ask donors to deepen the conversation. So for the fundraising webinar, it's sponsored by the sustainability network, which is Canada's national support network for the environment. And that's on the 25th. So people can track it down and go to my website, you'll see the information there. And so that's coming up and that's something I'm excited about.
Carol: This episode will probably be published after that happened. So will that be possible for people to access it after the fact?
Andy: It's a great question. I don't know. But I suspect if they go to the website for the sustainability network, which is sustainability to sustainability network.ca and poke around there, you may find it if not reach out to me and I'll put you on my list for future events, I'm doing lots of webinars and trainings. Someday I may actually go back on the road again when that's allowed. We'll see. And I look forward to supporting you in whatever way I can.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great talking with you this morning. Thank you Carol.
Andy: For inviting me. It was fun talking with you too, and have a good day, everybody.
In episode 20 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Scott discussed include:
Elizabeth Scott, PhD, founder of Brighter Strategies, provides thought leadership and high value organizational development consulting in support of a stronger social sector. Liz has provided consulting services in strategic planning, process-improvement, and human capital development for hundreds of nonprofits and associations. She has been a Baldrige examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia and is a certified Standard of Excellence consultant. In addition to managing the practice, Liz holds a faculty positions at both The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and George Mason University. Liz holds an undergraduate degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Organizational Sciences from The George Washington University, as well as a second master’s and Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Liz. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Elizabeth Scott: Thanks so much, Carol. I'm excited to be here.
Carol: So just to get started, can you tell people what drew you to the work that you do? What, what really motivates you and what would you say is your, why.
Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. Great question. So I think for me, there's a little Y and then there's a big why, and I'll start with the little why my undergraduate and most of my formative studies are in sociology and macro theory. And so for me, it's always been really interesting to understand why organizations. Why people, why groups behave the way that they do. And so that's been something that has stuck with me through my education, as well as, as I went into the workforce, particularly my first job out of college. And I wondered why do people work the way they do? Why is this happening the way it is? And then the bigger ‘why’ is, as I advanced in my career, I began to realize that the non-profit community, the nonprofits are such a, they're a fabric of our community and they touch everybody's lives. And in the nonprofit space, at least at the time when I started writer strategies, there weren't a lot of groups that were focused on building capacity in that space, particularly being here in DC, things tend to be a little bit more federal government oriented. And the nonprofit sector is huge and it really impacts the daily lives of all of us. And so I thought, could I combine the two, could I combine my passion of capacity building and development and nonprofit work. And I was really lucky and was able to do that.
Carol: Yeah, it's interesting that you talk about that, why do people work the way they do? I think that's what drew me to the work as well. I was already in the sector and I think so many people come into the sector wanting to work on some cause or some issue that they find really important. And certainly that drew me as well. But over time it was more. Thinking about the function of how people work. always hoping that they're doing good work, but thinking about the function and, and how to help them be more effective over time. So, yeah, I definitely, I definitely relate to that. Motivation. Yeah,
Elizabeth: we always talk about that. Our role as consultants is to help build internal capacity so that they can go out and do whatever that mission work is. And there are so many organizations that are doing really great things and, so our focus is on helping them shore up. Do you have the right people, the right planning, the right processes so that you can be sustainable, so that you can actually impact your community the way you want. And those are really important questions.
Carol: And talking of sustainability, you've done some research recently on nonprofit leadership and its intersection with the organizational code culture during COVID. What would you say are some of your key findings in that research?
Elizabeth: So we had the opportunity to partner with the center for nonprofit advancement. And we did a study that went out to 255 nonprofits here in the DC area. And what we found is that as COVID was rolling out and all of the murders that were happening over the summer and the racial unrest that organizations were really struggling [and] trying to figure out where their place should be. And so what we heard. Was that there was a substantial loss of funding for most organizations. They suddenly were in a position where they could not engage with clients the way they had done it before, nobody was doing virtual or. Doing in-person anymore because of COVID. So they were shifting their energies to think more virtual. Lot of them were completely rethinking their strategic plan. And on top of that, they had a lot of increased costs with trying to move programs online. And then you add on top of that, that a lot of them lost most of their volunteer base because volunteers tend to be in the older community. They weren't leaving their homes. They weren't being engaged. Those who were in the younger community suddenly had children at home that were homeschooling. They could not go out and volunteer and do what they had been doing. And so you add all that and mix it up. And what we found was that. Organizations were being impacted significantly.
And then on top of that, there was this huge gap of services. So when we did the survey, we actually found that organization saw an 80% increase in the needs that they saw in their communities. And that they saw that these were gaps that their organization and other organizations weren't able to sustain. And so, some organizations did get some aid, but the need is really outpacing the funding. And so that was a really interesting study. The full report is actually available in the center for nonprofit advancements website. So if anyone wants to go there and see some of the other pieces We also did a followup, a bunch of focus groups in January to get a sense. And that was a partnership with ACRA Alexandria to get a sense of what are people experiencing now, now that we're about a year in, and there were some really interesting findings there, particularly around the culture piece that you were talking about. And the first one was that people are still rethinking strategy and operations. So they've moved to virtual, but now they're beginning to think about how do we reintegrate when we go back to being in person, they're really concerned about low morale and trying to figure out how to keep people connected and looking for ways to support people during this time of uncertainty.
We also heard that fundraising is top of mind for people. Everyone is in need. Everyone is asking for how do we do this the right way without overtaxing or over asking? Staff in general, executive directors are a little bit burned out and staff are tired. They're emotionally exhausted. And so there's a lot of emphasis on self-care and building better support systems. And then I think to no surprise the conversation around racial equity is something that people are spending a lot of time talking about. So how do we send her race equity with our board? How do we center it with our staff? How do we think about how we're engaging communities in a mindful and thoughtful way? And then the last thing we heard was around governance. So all those volunteers that we talked about earlier sitting on boards, many of them have dropped off boards. They have been busy with their own lives and suddenly can not be as engaged as they want to be. So a lot of the organizations that we talk to are rethinking board governance. They're rethinking their overall strategy, rethinking recruitment. So there's a lot on people's plates right now, I think.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. You're talking about struggling to keep that place whole then One of the things that, oftentimes during a recession you'll have that dual impact on nonprofits of increased need for their services and decreased funding and revenue, but it feels like. With this there's even more layered on top of that with the impact on volunteers, the impact on boards having to do your program in a totally different way. It's, it's even more so than what maybe organizations had. Might've been able to work through and, and be, be resilient through a recession or, or in the economic downturn in the past. And this being wholly different.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And I think of something you said earlier, you layer that on top of the fact that we're all now isolated and many of us are virtual. And so how do you keep a positive sustaining culture within your organization when. People are all over the place. And not only are people working from home, but they're dealing with homeschooling, they're dealing with elder care, they're dealing with lots of other personal life issues that are going to influence how they're able to show up on the job. And so I think that's important to note too. So this focus on. Self-care this focus on building morale on making sure that people don't feel burned out, that they feel valued, that they're contributing to the organization. I think those are really important elements and a little bit of a silver lining that we're having these conversations.
Carol: And how would you say what are, what are some things that you see are working in terms of organizations being able to address that morale issue?
Elizabeth: Great question. So what we've seen work really well are for organizations that have really ramped up their communication processes and organizations that have involved staff in these decisions. So we have a number of clients that are having regular touch point meetings with staff they're doing some of them are doing things like appreciative inquiry style workshops, where they're really trying to think about. What's good and what's working and how do we harness that? So they're using staff to brainstorm and to think through solutions to problems. We've seen organizations put together really intentional care packages. So things from, stipends, or we had one client that is in person right now. And so they partnered with an emotional support animal rescue. And so they're bringing the animals by on a weekly basis for staff to get an opportunity to hang out with them, to be able to sit with the dog, pet the dog for a little bit. So I think people are being really creative, but those that are being successful are doing it with intentionality and they're not doing it in a vacuum. They're there, they're involving their staff and trying to identify solutions for how to move forward.
Carol: That's so key because I, I, wait, in the, before times way before the pandemic was working in an organization where, there was a sense of like, we're really stodgy and we don't have fun. And so, the CFO decided it would be a great idea to put a foosball table in the, in the kitchen area. And that was a nice idea. And 2 out of the 80 staff would regularly use it. But it just didn't fit with the culture. People knew that they would not be looked well upon if they were actually playing foosball on work hours. So, involving staff and having a conversation about what, what works for us, what works within our culture, I think is super important.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And it's not all these things like foosball tables or, people try to do fun. Those are good. There's nothing wrong with infusing some fun into the workplace. But a lot of culture is really built off of what we value and how we behave and how we treat one another. So I think involving staff in these conversations that say, look, things are weird right now, and we're acknowledging that what do you need to be successful? How can we support you? I think having those more, what I'll call more real conversations as opposed to, Hey, we bought you a popcorn machine can be really helpful and appreciated by staff. At the end of the day, we all want to feel valued and we want to feel heard and. So organizations that are doing that I think are able to traverse some of the difficulties that we've talked about during COVID easier than organizations that are not putting time and intentional thought into culture.
Carol: And how would you say that organizations are dealing with that loss of the volunteer base? I mean, what have you seen, what steps have you seen organizations take in that direction?
Elizabeth: that's actually huge. What we've seen is that a lot of them are completely rethinking their programming and rethinking ways to engage volunteers. So I'll go back to the study that we did with the center, but we found that 56% of the organizations, and this was about October, November, timeframe had transitioned all of their in-person. Activities to virtual 62% created entirely new programs. So things they weren't even running pre COVID. And then another 25% started doing emergency in person programming, which was also not part of their original charter pre COVID. And so in all of those cases, being able to think about how we use volunteers in different ways. It's not just the socially distancing piece, but can we get a volunteer to run a virtual event, for example, as opposed to having a staff person do it? Or can we partner? One of the things that we've learned with virtual events is it's better to have more than one person on there. And so can we partner a staff person with a volunteer to help facilitate a support group for example, or a parent teacher evening or whatever it is, educational format or whatever it is that they're doing. So I think people are just being really creative, but they're also creating entirely new service offerings, which is interesting. There's a little bit of a silver lining there that it took a pandemic, but people are being really creative and that's a positive thing.
Carol: Yeah. I think the assumption that you can do things only in person or only online. I think after we go back to whatever, not back, but go to whatever the next normal will be. There's, I think there's going to be this heightened assumption that people can access things online, not having to travel and all of those kinds of things, when you're trying to do both at the same time in person and online is harder than doing one or the other. So that's going to be a really hard challenge, I think, that raised [the] expectations that people have.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I would totally agree with you. I think that we're not going to go back to being in person the way we were. I think we're going to end up being hybrid for quite some time. People's work habits have changed. People have realized that they can work in other environments. even in my own friend circle, I've had four sets of friends that have moved outside of the DC area and relocated because they've realized that they can do their jobs from anywhere. And so I think nonprofits are not immune to that. I think they've started to create new programming and I think some of that programming is going to stick. Obviously the in-person stuff is going to come back too, but at the end of the day, I think we're going to have this hybrid work experience and learn to do that, at least over the next two or three years. I don't know that anyone has that down pat yet, but they're working on it and I think people are smart. We'll figure it out.
Carol: Can you give me some examples of those kinds of new, new programming elements that people have developed?
Elizabeth: Yeah. one of the really creative things that we've heard is actually around fundraising. So a lot of people, a lot of organizations are dependent on an annual event, like a gala or a walk or something that is very in-person oriented. And a lot of the organizations. That we work with have been really creative about repurposing and reformatting those experiences. And interestingly, they've actually, for the most part made more money off of them because they're not paying for all of the, the hotel, the rental, the food, all that sort of thing. The trick there seems to have been to create a personalized experience for the donor. So some of these groups. Would mail care packages to people's homes. We had one client that did a wine tasting and they mailed the wine tasting to everybody. And then Somalia came on zoom and walked you through your personalized wine tasting and groups have music and other sorts of things that are happening in the background. So they're just thinking about how do we, how do we take what was in person and create meaningful value? In a virtual experience. And I think that outside of fundraising and operations, we're seeing that on the program side too. Right. So how can I connect with my clients in a way maybe we were doing in-person support groups. Well, now we can do them virtually and one client, by way of example, said that their support groups, which were regionally oriented tended to have about. Seven to maybe 12 people that showed up. Now those same support groups have over 50 people showing up because people are no longer tied to the geographic region. You want to go to the Dallas support group, but you're in Boston. Sure. Go for it. And so they've been able to reach more. People have more of a positive impact in their community, but do it in a way that has been innovative and creative.
Carol: Yeah, I've heard a lot of organizations talk about increased participation in the variety of events or programs that they offer simply because that, the, the commute time having to just be out of the office. All of those things are, are taken, taken away, or are no longer there. So it just makes it easier. The ease of entry is just there and in comparison to going to an event and committing not only to the time you're there, but the time on either end to get there and get back.
Elizabeth: Yeah, it's interesting. I remember a couple of years ago in the fundraising space, there was this huge trend to have events where you would pay to not go. it would be a fun run or something like that. And someone like me who's lazy would say, eh, I'll give you a hundred bucks. I don't actually want to run. So you were paying to not be involved in a way. This is another new creative way of thinking about. How do we engage people? How do we provide something tangible, but yet you're not actually going to an event. Right. But I think people are concerned about how much appetite will people have for virtual convening? And it's not just fundraisers, but it's also programming. And I think we're all feeling a little zoomed out right now. And so how many hours a day is it healthy to be on zoom and to engage in virtual dialogue with people? I think all that is still maybe a little bit of a question mark.
Carol: Yeah, I don't, I don't think it's an all or nothing. Right. I mean, and, and having to do it all the time. I had a particularly long day of zooming yesterday and I was just wiped by the abdomen and, and some people that's their reality all the time. Now I have the luxury of having a little more control over it. How would you say organizational cultures really need to do in order to, to adapt to this new reality?
Elizabeth: That's a good question too. I think that organizations are going to have to start thinking about work in different ways, and they're going to have to start thinking about how people communicate in different ways. So some organizations. Zoom is one thing, right? Some organizations were fast adopters of that. Other technologies like Slack or I'm sure there's lots of other mediums out there as well. I'm not extremely well versed in those, but the idea of thinking of how we communicate in real time, how we manage workflow. Having even things as simple as having all of your files be on the cloud. So people can access the same material that when we're editing documents, we're not working over each other, but working collaboratively with one another. So I think that as organizations continue down this path, having strong communication strategies makes sense, doing workflow mapping makes sense. How do we want to work together? What does that look like? I think revisiting strategies. Makes sense. So much has changed for a lot of organizations. The strategic plan that they put in place may or may not be relevant at this point. So a lot of the groups we're working with right now are actually looking at one year strategic plans, as opposed to the more traditional three to five-year plan, because they're really trying to think about how we get through the next 12 months. What does that look like? And we'll talk about beyond later. So I think just being flexible and revisiting the what and the how of how work happens is really important.
Carol: Yeah, going to that strategy piece. I think when, when people are in that crisis mode and you talked about all the different stressors that are, that are hitting organizations. And so it is, about, can we, can we get through, can we survive this? And when you're in that survival mode, I was doing a focus group the other day and was asking about trends in the particular field that these folks worked in, and they were talking and saying how ‘we're just trying to survive.’ I can't think long-term right now. And, we know that our brains just don't work that way. Like when you are in crisis, you are short, you do, short-term thinking. So, just accepting that reality, that where we are. That's where that organization is.
Elizabeth: one interesting thing that jumps out for me as you were sharing that. We had the opportunity to run a focus group. It's actually more like a large listening session with about 25 nonprofits that use a design thinking process to help them think about what partnership and collaboration in COVID looks like. And it was this really interesting dynamic conversation where people realize to your point, they can't go it alone. So if I am struggling. And you're struggling. Chances are we're struggling in different areas. So how can I support you? How can you support me? And so getting these organizations together to brainstorm and think about what might a more collaborative future look like, where could we partner and share resources. Share connections, share relationships, maybe even go after [some] larger foundation or larger grant money through a more collective collaborative pool. So having those conversations I think is incredibly powerful and it was really neat listening to the different connections that some of these groups were making.
And some of them were connections that you would think are sort of obvious, like, okay, we all work in early childhood education. So we could all band together this way. However, some of the connections were a little bit less obvious: people might've been in the same geographic region or they might've had similar funders or had similar interests in the business community where they could bring boards together to leverage resources that way.
So again, I think it's just another opportunity to be really creative. And mindful about how to do business differently.
Carol: Yeah. I love the point that you're making that, organizations may be struggling, but they're probably not all struggling in the same way and something is going well in the organization.
And how can they share that with others?
Carol: exactly. And you talked about communications. Can you say a little bit more about [the] organizations that are doing this well are really focusing on that. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that and how, if, if an organization wanted to spend more time focused on that, what they might do?
Elizabeth: I think it's about the organization and the people within it, having real time access. And all getting information at the same time. So making sure that everybody has access to information and resources that people understand what decision-making processes are in place around the information that's being communicated to them, that they understand what next steps are. One of the things that we talk about at the team level is something as simple as putting together a team charter that identifies communication protocols, who's responsible for communicating what we talk about to other areas or groups within the organization. So information it's like water, it's a waterfall, right? It should cascade from one group to the next group and it should go up through the organization as well as down through the organization. So I think groups that are doing this well, have an actual communication plan in place where they're thinking about who needs to know what, when, and they're transparent, they're not operating in silos or hoarding information. And some of that can be done through technology. Things like Slack, for example, gives you the opportunity to send information to everybody, as opposed to maybe an email where I forgot to include a name, but it's not just technology. It's also about behaviors and habits and transparency, which I think is equally as important.
Carol: Yeah, because oftentimes, organizations relied on informal processes that people didn't really think about how information was disseminated. May it may be a few key pieces where an email goes out to everybody, but oftentimes it was much more informal. Oh, you went to that meeting and then you stop by and see somebody. And, Oh, what, what did you talk about in that? What's going on with your team and you don't have those opportunities in a remote working environment to be able to bump into people and have those informal. So it all has to be much more intentional and much more explicit. And I also appreciated what you said about decision making, because that's, I think another area where there've been a lot of implicit norms that people have about how decisions get made, but there isn't necessarily a common kind of. Yeah. Explicit understanding of how that happens. Yeah.
Elizabeth: We've actually sat down with teams and done decision trees. Right. So this is a particular type of decision who needs to be involved, who needs to be communicated with whoever is the ultimate decision maker on this. And what's fascinating about doing that. I mean, it sounds like a boring exercise, but what's fascinating about that is you get three or four people around a table. They have completely different understandings of how a simple decision should be made. Right. And you realize these are things we don't really talk about in team meetings. We talk about the work that needs to get done, but we don't often talk about the process by which that work happens. And that brings me full circle back to my passion for sociology and looking at how that applies to an organization because the, how the work happens. In many cases it is much more important and impactful because you cannot have an impact or the impact that you want in the community. If you're not operating in a way that is sustainable or that builds internal capacity.
Carol: Yeah. And so that also brings to mind something that you mentioned before of workflow mapping and all of these things, if someone's struggling to keep their head above water, they're like, well, you don't have time to do all of this. And yet, investing a little bit of time in doing these things that can seem prosaic and boring can actually almost, get, get, get some of the static out of the system because people then have a common understanding.
Elizabeth: It reminds me of the manager who says I'm so busy. I don't have time to delegate yet. They're so busy that if they actually could delegate, they would be in a much less stressful position. It's sort of that same notion.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So at the end of every episode, I play a game where I ask you a somewhat random icebreaker question. So I know that you in addition to leading brighter strategies, you're a professor. So I thought you would appreciate this question. If you could instantly be an expert in any subject, what would it be and why?
Elizabeth: Ooh, any subject. Okay. So my husband has tried to explain how electricity works to me probably 50 times. And I get it. It's like water. That's what he keeps telling me. But I don't get it. I just do not understand. It's like magic. You flip a light switch on and it happens. And I just have never really understood hard sciences were never a strength of mine. So if I could be instantly smart at something, it would be understanding some of the hard sciences, understanding how things work so that I could have an actually a more intelligible conversation with him and others. When those sorts of topics come up. You bring up anything science oriented and I'm like, I have no idea.
Carol: So it's how things work versus how people work. Yeah. All right. Well what are you excited about with your work? What's coming up next for you and what's, what's emerging in the, in the work that you're doing.
Elizabeth: Well, I'm really excited about a new project. We have for February, for black history month, and then for March for women's history month, we have our highlighting clients and individuals running nonprofits here in the DC area that we're doing little biographies on them and the impact of their work within their community. So we have a couple up on the website. Site already for February. And we've got a couple more coming up in March and we're going to be continuing that throughout the year. And it's just a really awesome way to point out really good organizations doing great work with amazing leaders. So I would encourage people to check out the blog on our website and to read a little bit about some of the amazing leaders that are out there.
Carol: Well, we will put a link in the show notes to that. So thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast.
Elizabeth: it was great to be here. Thanks, Carol.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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